CDC Report shows continued decline in the number of abortions

By Randall K O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research

Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gave pro-lifers something to be very thankful for this Thanksgiving. Their latest surveillance reports that abortions, abortion rates, and abortion ratios all continued to fall for 2015, the latest year for which it has figures.

These declines are very important, but sometimes CDC numbers can be confusing. To be clear their total of 638,169 abortion represents a significant undercount. The CDC relies on state health departments which vary in their thoroughness. Moreover California, the nation’s most populous state, and Maryland and New Hampshire have not reported figures to the CDC since 1998.

(The Guttmacher Institute reported 926,490 abortions for the U.S. as recently as 2014, and their numbers are generally thought to be more reliable because they survey abortion clinics directly and have data from those missing states.)

However, the data the CDC collect yearly offers a good guide to incidence of abortion and overall demographic trends.

The CDC’s total abortions reported for 2015 represented a welcome drop of 14,470 from the national total it reported for the previous year. This represents a reduction just over 2% for the 47 states and two municipal health agencies (New York City and Washington, DC) that provided the CDC with data.

Significantly, abortion rates and abortion ratios also showed declines, both reaching levels not seen since Roe legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

The CDC’s abortion rate is the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 years. In 2015 it was 11.8, down from 12.1 from the previous year. In 1973 the abortion rate was 14 per thousand women aged 15-44. In 1972 the abortion rate was 13 per thousand in 1972.

Clearly abortion has become considerably less common than it’s been since abortion became legal throughout the nation. As a reference point, in 1980 the abortion rate was more than twice that– 25 per thousand– the largest figure CDC ever reported.

The CDC’s abortion ratio measures the number of abortions for every 1,000 reported live births. This number gives us an indication of the likelihood that a pregnant woman chooses to abort rather than going on to give birth to her baby.

The CDC’s most recent abortion ratio showed that there were 188 abortions for every thousand lives births in 2015. This, too, is lower than it was in 1973 (196.3 abortions for every thousand live births). That figure has dropped by nearly half from what it was in 1984, when the CDC recorded a high of 364.1 abortions for every 1,000 live births.

All these are clear and welcome indications that fewer women are turning to abortion. The CDC is reluctant to credit any single cause, saying that

Multiple factors influence the incidence of abortion, including access to health care services and contraception; the availability of abortion providers; state regulations, such as mandatory waiting periods, parental involvement laws, and legal restrictions on abortion providers; increasing acceptance of nonmarital childbearing; shifts in the race/ethnicity composition of the U.S. population; and changes in the economy and the resulting impact on fertility preferences and use of contraception.

The CDC has long echoed the abortion and family planning lobby’s contention that more and better contraceptive use is a key feature in past and any future declines. It’s very noticeable, however, that the CDC admits that pro-life laws such as waiting periods, parental involvement, and clinic regulations may have had a tangible impact on reducing the number of abortions and the likelihood that pregnant women choose abortion.

In its reporting Guttmacher has also noted the declining number of abortionists. In its report the CDC mentions “the availability of abortion providers” as a possible factor. Missing, however, is a further elaboration about the reason those abortionists quit – exiting in scandal (like Kermit Gosnell), retirement, conversion, or simply because of a reduced demand for their “services.”

There are some concerning elements among the otherwise encouraging statistical good news. The number of chemical abortions is increasing. The percentage of “early medical abortions” (the CDC’s designation for nonsurgical chemical abortions at or earlier than eight weeks gestation) in the last ten years has risen from 11.3% in 2006 to 24.2% in 2015.

High numbers of chemical abortions are why nearly two-thirds (65.4%) of abortions are now performed at eight-week’ gestation or earlier. Before trials of mifepristone (one half of the typical two drug chemical abortion regimen) began in the U.S. in 1994, the percentage of abortions at eight weeks or earlier never rose above 52.1%

The CDC acknowledges that the situation is worse than that, however. The percentage of later chemical abortions – those at nine weeks or further into pregnancy–jumped in 2015.

This followed the decision by the National Abortion Federation and the Society of Family Planning to modify their guidelines to endorse mifepristone use up to 70 days (ten weeks). The Food & Drug Administration did not authorize this change until March of 2016.

After a fairly even climb from 5% of all chemical abortions at nine weeks or later in 2011 to 7.7% in 2014, the percentage suddenly increased to 13% in 2015, a sign that these later chemical abortions were on the rise.

Repeat abortions accounted for 43.6% of all abortions. Nearly six in ten (59.3%) of aborting women reported having at least one previous live birth. About one in 12 (8.2%) had undergone three or more previous abortions while about one in seven (14.2%) had had three or more prior births, according to the CDC.

Precise demographic data is hard to measure with states with high minority populations such as California missing from the mix. But higher abortion rates and abortion ratios for black and Hispanic women continue to be a serious problem.

Though all racial and ethnic groups showed improvement over previous numbers, Non-Hispanic black women still had an abortion rate (25.1 abortions per 1,000 women 15-44 years old) and an abortion ratio (390 abortions per 1,00 live births) for 2015 more than three times that of non-Hispanic white women (abortion rate of 6.8 per thousand women and an abortion ratio of 111 abortions per thousand births).

Rates and ratios for Hispanic women for 2015 (11.6 abortions per thousand women, 152 abortions per thousand births) were higher than those for whites but lower than those reported for African American women.

Due to data collection and processing lags, the numbers for abortion-related maternal deaths are a year behind. The CDC says it was able to confirm at least six abortion-related [maternal] deaths due to legal abortion in 2014, a silent rebuke to the abortion industry’s portrayals of modern abortion ease and safety.