CDC and Guttmacher Release Contradicting Abortion Numbers: Part One

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

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued its Abortion Surveillance report for 2020. It showed what appeared to be a drop of 2% in the number of abortions performed in the U.S. The CDC recorded 620,327 abortions from state health departments, about 9,500 fewer abortions than it had recorded in 2019.

While the CDC showed abortion rates dropping slightly, from 11.4 abortions per thousand women of reproductive age (15-44) to 11.2, it saw an increase in the abortion ratio, from 195 abortions per thousand live births in 2019 to 198 for 2020.

Earlier that same day, the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the abortion industry that was at one point a special research affiliate of Planned Parenthood, put out a report of its own. It reported abortions were up for 2020, reaching 930,160 for the country as a whole, with both abortion rates and ratios showing increases.

Guttmacher’s abortion rate increased from 14.2 abortions per thousand women of reproductive age (for Guttmacher, counting age at July 1st of each year) in 2019 to 14.4 in 2020.  Their abortion ratio, measured somewhat differently from the CDC but employing the same basic concept, showed an increase from 19.8 abortions per hundred pregnancies ending in abortion or live birth (measured in the 12 months past July 1st again) in 2019 to 20.6 in 2020.

Because the CDC relies on reports of various quality from state health departments and has been missing data from California, the nation’s most populous state, and at least two other states since 1988, their numbers have always been significantly lower than those from the Guttmacher Institute, which surveys clinics directly. 

This tells us part of the reason why, for more than two decades, the CDC’s numbers have been hundreds of thousands less a year than those reported by Guttmacher.  But it doesn’t necessarily tell us why the CDC showed a decrease in 2020 while the Guttmacher Institute showed numbers going the other way.

We are left with two competing narratives. One source – the CDC – shows a modest downward trend, continuing a decline that has generally been going on three decades. The other – Guttmacher – shows an increase that appears to have been going on now for at least three years, when that group reported 862,320, its lowest figure in 46 years.  Guttmacher’s latest total for 2020 – 930,160 – returns to a level not seen since 2013.

The increase in the number  of chemical abortions, particularly with the gutting of regulations during COVID allowing telemedical abortion and mail delivery of pills, may have played a role, especially with the pandemic making doing and tracking everything more difficult.

The way that the pandemic and various pro-life laws and clinic regulations have pushed the abortion industry to recalibrate their business model and consolidate clinics may have shifted patient management to a lot of big abortion clinics, an adjustment that may take states health departments a while to track and accommodate.

Even before Dobbs (which was still a year and a half away), many abortion businesses were beginning to look at packing up and heading to other states they expected to be more abortion friendly.

The long and short of it is that each of these groups did their data collection at a time when the country and the abortion industry were in enormous flux, which can make counting a bit difficult.

We’ll look at some of these factors and other details from these reports over the next few days.