By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRLC Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. Tomorrow Dr. O’Bannon will examine what abortion data from individual states tells us about the causes of the declines and what may possibly be concerns for the future going forward.
Earlier this year, we were all delighted to find out that abortions, abortion rates, and abortion ratios had dropped to levels not seen since the early 1970s. The good news that came from the Guttmacher Institute has been reinforced by the publication of state abortion data for 2014 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Before we go further, here is the caveat that we offer every time. Unlike the CDC, Guttmacher has data from all fifty states and access to more abortionists, so numbers are more complete and its abortion totals are always significantly higher. The CDC’s reports, the latest being “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2014,” are published more frequently and provide more information on the details and demographics of these trends, thus giving us some better idea of some of the factors that may end or extend the decline.
According to the CDC, there were 11,796 fewer abortions performed in 2014 than in 2013. This meant a drop of 2% in just one year.
The CDC’s abortion rate for 2014 was 12.1 abortions/1,000 women of reproductive age (15-44 years). That is lower than any other rate the CDC has recorded since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.
The CDC abortion ratio, which measures the number of abortions for every 1,000 live births, was 186, again, lower than any ratio the CDC has found since 1973.
Delving into Demographics
Further examination of the CDC data shows abortion dropping in nearly age, racial, and ethnic category.
Since 2005, abortion rates have fallen for nearly every age group. For teens 15-19, they fell by nearly half, 49.3%, the CDC reported. Rates for women 20-24, which generally have the highest prevalence, fell by 26.8%. Women 25-29 dropped 15.9%, those 30-34 declined 11.9%, while women 35-39 saw a 5.2% drop.
The one exception was women 40 and over, who saw their rates inch up 4%.
While the rate tells us how common abortion is for a general population of women, the abortion ratio gives us a better idea of a pregnant woman’s tendency to choose abortion or birth.
Abortion ratios have been down for every age group since 2005. From 2005 to 2014, CDC reported abortion ratios were down 18%-19% for women age groups 15-19, 30-34, 35-39, and over 40 during that time span. They were also down for women 20-24 and 25-29 as well, though not as much, 9.9% and 11.7% respectively.
Teens under 15 had a very high abortion ratio– 837 abortions for every 1,000 live births–but their abortion rates were very low (0.5 abortions per 1,000 women of that age range). This means they were very likely to choose abortion if they became pregnant, but there are a lot fewer pregnancies in this group.
Ratios tended to decline with age (315 per 1,000 births for those aged 15-19 and 113 for women 30-34). However they rose for women after age 35 (139 abortions per 1,000 births for women 35-39, 227 per 1,000 for those 40 and older).
Abortion rates for women age 35 and older are generally much lower than those for women of other ages. Part of that is because of lower fertility. Abortion ratios for this group may also be somewhat higher, the CDC ventures, because women of this age group may see a greater occurrence of “maternal medical indications or fetal anomalies.”
Race and Ethnicity
Racial and ethnic breakdowns are challenging for the CDC. For starters, there is the absence of data from some of the states with the largest concentrations of minorities. Furthermore, states count and report this data differently. This makes it difficult for the CDC to bring all this data into a single set, so it reports it in different formats.
For example, one data table counts Hispanics as a separate group. However another table includes at least some of those Hispanics in the category of whites, yielding different totals or rates for the same racial or ethnic group.
Data from the largest number of reporting areas (36 states plus the District of Columbia) show an abortion rate for whites of 6.9/1,000 women and an abortion ratio of112 abortions/1,000 live births. That same table reports a 23.2 abortion/1,000 live births for black women and an abortion ratio of 345/1,000 live births. Both are about triple the rate of whites.
Hispanic abortion rates and ratios, recorded in a separate table of 36 reporting areas (this one including DC and New York City along with 34 states) were closer to that of whites from the earlier table . This table shows Hispanics with an abortion rate of 11.9 abortions/1,000 women aged 15-44 and an abortion rate of146 abortions/1,000 live births.
Abortion rates and ratios have decreased substantially for all three main racial/ethnic groups. Among the 20 reporting areas that have released consistent data since 2007, abortion rates for non-Hispanic white women fell 26% and rates for non-Hispanic black women dropped 27%. The abortion rate of Hispanic women fell even more during the same time frame –41%. 
Abortion ratios fell in all three groups as well during that same time frame. They declined 23% for non-Hispanic whites, 19% for non-Hispanic blacks, and 22% for Hispanics.
Previous Births, Abortions, and Marital Status
Nearly 6 in 10 (59.5%) of these women had already undergone at least one previous live birth before having their abortion. As for repeat abortions, 44.5% reported having at least one prior abortion. Nearly one in five (17.6%) reported two previous abortions, while 5.6% said they’d had at least three previous abortions.
As has long been the case, in 2014 the overwhelming majority of abortions (85.5%) were to unmarried women
Types and Timing of Abortions
Over two thirds (67%) of abortions were performed at 8 or fewer weeks gestation. The advent of chemical abortions has meant that more and more abortions are performed at earlier gestations. Thus it is not surprising that just over four in ten (41.1%) were actually performed at 6 weeks or less in 2014. CDC data shows that the number of abortions at 6 weeks or less has risen steadily since 2005.
About a quarter (24.5%)of the abortions occurred between 9 and 13 weeks. The remaining 8.5% were performed in the 2nd trimester or later: 3.3% at 14-15 weeks, 2% at 16-17 weeks, 1.9% at 18-20 weeks, and 1.3% at or beyond 21 weeks.
The CDC shows that 76% of all abortions continue to be surgical abortions (67.4% first trimester, 8.6% at second or third trimester). Most of the rest of the abortions (22.6%) were1st trimester “medical” (chemical) abortions using drugs like mifepristone (RU-486) and misoprostol. An additional 1.5% were chemical procedures performed at 8 weeks or more.
Just a handful of abortions employed rarely used chemical or surgical methods like instillation or hysterotomy.
Overall, though data shows first trimester surgical abortions still dominate the industry, it also shows abortions being performed earlier and earlier, with more and more using chemical rather than surgical methods.
 A note of caution, though. These figures contain no data for Hispanics in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, or other states with substantial Hispanic populations. Furthermore, given the difference in heritage and culture (e.g., some recently arrived from one particular Central American culture, others who were born and raised in the U.S.), one also cannot assume Hispanics in one state to be just like those in another, or to have the same abortion rates or ratios simply by virtue of their ethnicity.