Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases information on the number of abortions in the United States. Newly published data from 2009 shows that rates of abortion overall have decreased 5 percent since 2008 to the lowest levels since 2000. In general, rates of abortion were highest right after legalization, fell steadily in the 1980s and 1990s, and started to level off in the past decade.
It is not clear why rates have fallen. Possible contributors range from the expanded use of contraceptives and better sex education to the declining number of abortion providers and increases in restrictive abortion laws. Unintended pregnancy rates have not changed in decades — about half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended — so that is not responsible for any decline.
As we know, many myths persist about who gets abortions and why. The following details shed some light on the topic:
- Women in their 20s have the highest rates of abortion (ages 20–24: 27.4 abortions per 1,000 women / ages 25–29: 20.4 abortions per 1,000 women), and account for 57.1 percent of all abortions.
This doesn’t seem terribly surprising given that women in their 20s are more likely to be fertile. In addition, they are more frequently uninsured. The insurance factor likely decreases their use of the most effective birth control methods –IUDs and implants –as those methods require a visit to a health care provider.
- The majority of women (55.3 percent) having abortions have not had a previous abortion. About 25 percent have had one previous abortion, and about 11 percent have had two previous abortions. Only about 8 percent have had three or more abortions, suggesting that the overwhelming majority of women having abortions do not fit the “using it as birth control” myth.
- Six out of every 10 women having abortions have already had one or more children. Women very frequently say that they chose abortion in order to best be able to care for their existing families.
- Abortions are usually performed early in pregnancy, with 64 percent done at less than eight weeks gestation, and about 92 percent done by or before 13 weeks.
There has been a clear shift to earlier abortions, with an almost 50 percent increase in abortions done at less than six weeks’ gestation. The CDC report is not able to address the reasons why; the increase may be caused by the greater availability of medication abortion (medication abortions are performed only up to 9 weeks) or an increased number of abortion laws that make later abortions more difficult to obtain.
Other points of interest:
- Use of medication abortion continues to increase; 16.5 percent of abortions in 2009 were done medically instead of surgically, a 10 percent increase from 2008.
- Abortion ratios (the number of abortions for every 1,000 women) decreased among non-Hispanic white women but not among women in any other racial/ethnic group.
Poor women, young women, and women of color are less likely to have access to reproductive health care services, more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, and more likely to have an abortion.
The CDC concludes its report with public health recommendations, including support for no-cost birth control. The Affordable Care Act comes close by eliminating co-pays for insured women (though employers who oppose reproductive rights are still fighting this provision), making birth control available without a co-pay for an estimated 47 million women. Here’s what the CDC has to say:
Moreover, although use of the most effective forms of reversible contraception (i.e., intrauterine devices and hormonal implants, which are as effective as sterilization at preventing unintended pregnancy ) has increased, use of these methods in the United States remains among the lowest of any developed country, and no additional progress has been made toward reducing unintended pregnancy. Research has shown that providing no-cost contraception increases use of the most effective methods and can reduce abortion rates. Removing cost as one barrier to the use of the most effective contraceptive methods might therefore be an important way to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and consequently the number of abortions that are performed in the United States.
See our analysis of a recent study on unintended pregnancies in St. Louis for further discussion of how improved access to free birth control reduces abortions. The study is important for its role in dismantling persistent myths about contraception and abortion.
Plus: Though some members of Congress with less-than-accurate ideas about women’s bodies lost re-election, that doesn’t mean Congress is apt to back smarter policy. Let’s remind all members about the importance of access to contraception and reproductive health services. Join the Educate Congress campaign to send “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to every elected senator and representative. You’ll receive an “I Educated Congress” button (and other perks) showing you did your part!