By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education and Research
Figures released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that the number of abortions are continuing to drop–by 4.2% in 2012. That means more than 31,000 fewer abortions in just one year’s time.
Abortion rates and ratios, which are very helpful for understanding the background, also continued to show declines. Conclusion? More and more women are rejecting abortion as a solution to unexpected pregnancy.
Relying on reports from 47 state health departments, the CDC reported 699,202 abortions for 2012, the lowest figure the agency has recorded since 1973, the year the Supreme Court first legalized abortion on demand. This figure, however, does not include abortions from California, the nation’s most populous state, or from New Hampshire or Maryland.
By contrast The Guttmacher Institute surveys clinics directly and does have data from all fifty states. Their last report showed more than 219,000 abortions for the three states missing from the CDC’s totals.
Guttmacher’s more aggressive search obtained a figure 1.06 million abortion for 2011. The CDC’s 2012 data is an indication that the national figure has dropped further, but it is difficult to say precisely how much.
In the states that the CDC did survey, it found an abortion rate of 13.2 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15-44 years. As for the abortion ratio, the CDC found that there were 210 abortions for every thousand live births.
To illustrate how large the drops are consider this. The CDC’s abortion rate was 25 per thousand women in 1980 (almost twice as high as 2012) and the abortion ratio it reported was 364 abortions per thousand live births in 1984.
Down Across the Country
A look at the state-by-state totals confirms not just the depth but the breadth of the decline. Declines were seen in 38 out of the 47 reporting states, some significant.
While abortions dropped 4.2% across the board, declines of 12.2%, 13%, 16.2%, and 39.6% were seen in Virginia, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Maine respectively.
There is no single cause that can explain every drop. During the time frame involved, Virginia debated safety regulations for clinics, New Jersey and Maine both had budget cuts that caused clinics to close, and New Mexico finally saw its high abortion totals, which lagged behind the rest of the country, begin to fall. Long-term educational, legislative and outreach efforts have surely played a role in many states.
Most of the increases in the few states that did see higher numbers were minimal. For example there was an increase of 9 abortions in Nevada, 37 in Delaware, 39 in Wyoming, and 70 in North Dakota.
However even in states where there were larger increases, such as Massachusetts (1,036) and Illinois 1,944), earlier trends or later data indicate these are temporary fluctuations in what are in fact longer-term declines.
Down in All Age Groups
In other encouraging news, abortion rates appear to be down across all age groups, but especially among younger women. The latest CDC figures show declining rates for every age group between 2011 and 2012. Teenagers 15-19 led the way. That demographic experienced a 12.3% drop in just one year, from 10.6 abortions per thousand to 9.3 per thousand.
Women with the highest abortion rate–those ages 20-24— had their rates drop from 25.2 to 23.6 in just a year’s time.
All told, teens 15-19 saw their rates drop 40.4% over the past 10 years measured (2003-2012). The abortion rate for women 20-24 dropped 24.4% and rates for women 25-29 fell 10.1% over the same time period.
And even while women over 40 saw their rates increase 7.7% from 2003 to 2012 (due to the increased prevalence of prenatal testing for conditions like Down syndrome?), even that group saw a decline of 3.4% from 2011 to 2012.
Abortion ratios– the number of abortions for every 1,000 live births– was down in all age groups, too. This is very important because it indicates that women who become pregnant are more likely to choose life for their babies than any in the past four decades.
In the past ten years (2003-2012), abortion ratios fell for all groups. The greatest decline was among 15-19 year olds, dropping from 378 abortions for every thousand live births in 2003 to 310 per thousand in 2012.
Those under 15 years old (which have accounted for just half of one percent of the total abortions or less in the U.S. since 2006) still had a high ratio of 817 abortions for every thousand live births. But even their abortion ratio was down 3.9% from the previous year.
More early, more chemical abortions
About two thirds of all abortions (65.8% in the states reporting gestational data) were performed at eight weeks gestation or earlier.  More than half of those performed at eight weeks or less, or 38.2% of the total reported by gestation, were performed at six weeks gestation or earlier. This surveillance report shows this as the highest percentage of abortions performed at six weeks or less in the past ten years studied (2003-2012).
Not surprisingly, given the increased percentages of abortions at lower gestations, the numbers and percentages of chemical or “medical” abortions were higher. More than one in five (20.7%) of abortions performed at eight weeks gestation (or earlier] were listed as “medical” abortions by the CDC. (“Medical” is code for chemical.)
These are the highest figures the CDC has reported for this type of abortion since the government allowed the abortifacient mifepristone to go on the market in September of 2000. An additional 1.1% was chemical abortions at greater than eight weeks.
Seven in ten abortions (69.5%) were first trimester “curettage” abortions and an additional 8.7% were curettage abortions performed after 13 weeks. This would include suction aspiration abortions performed up through about 16 weeks and dilation and evacuation or D&E “dismemberment” abortions performed after.
States which did not report gestational age reported nearly 33,000 more curettage abortions and more than 10,500 additional chemical abortions. Only a handful of abortions were performed by intrauterine instillation (146) or hysterectomy/hysterotomy (79) in 2012.
Race and Ethnicity
Getting a handle on the race and ethnicity of aborting women can be difficult. States employ different criteria for measuring each characteristic, so that a single state might report three different numbers for, say, Hispanic abortions in three different charts for the same year.
Add to this that many of the states do not report any racial or ethnic data at all (including not just California and Maryland, listed earlier, but large states such as Florida and Illinois, as well as Washington state, Arizona, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia). Cumulatively this makes identifying “the” number or percentage of abortions to a given group for a given year well nigh impossible, though data exist.
With that caveat, Table 12 of the CDC’s report for 2012 shows a breakdown of 37.6% abortions in 26 states which did include ethnic data were to white, non-Hispanic women, 36.7% to non-Hispanic black women, 7% to “other” non-Hispanic women and 18.7% to Hispanic women. Other tables place the percentage of abortions to black women as high as 40.5% and the percentage to Hispanic as low as 17.4%. But it is clear by any counting that minorities are much over-represented in the statistics relative to their population.
Back in Table 12 again, the abortion rate for Hispanics is nearly twice (15 abortions per thousand women of reproductive age) what it is for whites (7.7 per thousand). The abortion rate for blacks (27.8) is nearly four times that of whites.
Repeat abortions and previous births
Close to half (44.2%) of women having abortions have had at least one previous abortion. Eleven percent report two previous abortions and 8.6% report three abortions or more. What may be more disturbing is that nearly six in ten (59.8%) report having already previously giving live birth to at least one child.
Marriage and Mortality
Married women accounted for just 14.7% of abortions in the 36 states reporting marital status, with 85.3% of aborting women being unmarried.
Mortality statistics are always a year late for the CDC, but this report indicates that two more women are known to have died from legal abortions in 2011. Ten others were known to have died in 2010. All told, the CDC has recorded 424 maternal deaths from legal abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Despite claims that chemical abortions offered improved safety, maternal abortion deaths appear to have gone up since their approval.
What the numbers tell us
Every life lost to abortion is a tragedy. That there are fewer than there have been for nearly forty years is good news, but that there are still so many is an indication there is much work yet to be done.
The latest statistics from the CDC strongly suggest we have been very successful in reducing the prevalence of abortion among teenagers. This is encouraging, and not just because of the lives saved. Observing data over the long term, this would suggest a generational shift in attitudes and actions surrounding abortion–that is, that a woman will be less likely to abort not only in her teen years, but also as she grows older.
Abortion rates are still uneven when it comes to race and ethnicity. Abortion rates have fallen across the board, but black and Hispanic women are still considerably more likely to abort than their white counterparts. More pro-life outreach clearly needs to be done to these minority communities.
Abortion too often appears to have become very accepted in some quarters, with nearly half of abortions being repeat abortions. Moreover too many mothers to already-born children are turning to abortion rather than giving birth to another child. The availability and awareness of realistic alternatives to abortion are critical to these communities.
Chemical abortions are on the rise, with more women aborting earlier and using chemical methods. Abortion clinics are big boosters of chemical abortifacients because it enables them to expand abortion services at minimal cost and effort. But, as noted, they do not make abortion safer for women and certainly do not make it safer for their unborn children.
That there are hundreds of thousands fewer abortions today than there were ten, twenty years ago is proof that pro-life education, legislation, and outreach make a difference. Keep informed, stay active, and expand the outreach so that more and more lives are saved.
 Gestational age is reported according to clinician estimates in some states and calculated according to a woman’s last menstrual period in others.