A Tale of Two Americas for Women

Low-Income Women's Unplanned Pregnancy and Abortion Rates are Increasing As Better-Off Women Continue Three Decades of Progress

Over the past three decades, widespread access to modern contraceptives and safe, legal abortion has helped tens of millions of American women take control of their lives and achieve more for themselves and their families. But a new report from the Guttmacher Institute shows that not all women are reaping these benefits.

The report, Abortion in Women’s Lives, documents a widening reproductive health gap between poor women and higher-income women. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, women of all income groups became more likely to use contraceptives and less likely to experience unintended pregnancies. But since 1994, unplanned pregnancy rates among poor women have increased by 29%, while rates among higher-income women have decreased by 20%. Today, a poor woman is four times as likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy as a higher-income woman.

"Behind almost every abortion in the United States is an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Abortion is not an isolated event in a woman’s life. It is a last resort for a woman who is faced with a crisis pregnancy she did not want or plan for," says Sharon L. Camp, President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. Accordingly, doing more to help women avoid unintended pregnancies would drive substantial declines in abortion. But the federal government and most state governments have not done enough to make contraceptives more easily available. In a growing number of states, publicly supported family planning services are under attack, and public funding for contraceptive services has declined or stagnated in more than half of the states over the last decade. At the federal level, funding for family planning services for poor women has barely kept pace with inflation.

Rather than tackling the underlying problem of unintended pregnancies, conservative policymakers are taking a punitive approach: restricting access to abortion services. With the exception of the ban on federal funding for abortion services for poor women, restrictions such as waiting periods and parental consent or notifications laws have not been found to have a significant impact on the number of abortions. What is clear is that such restrictions force women seeking abortion, especially those who are most vulnerable, to have them later in pregnancy, when they are riskier. Lower-income women take up to three weeks longer than better-off women to obtain an abortion.

The Institute’s report calls on state and federal policymakers to facilitate access to abortions for women who need them, so that procedures can occur as early in pregnancy as possible, and simultaneously to jump-start the country’s stalled progress in reducing the need for abortion by strengthening women’s access to family planning. Specifically, policymakers should:

  • Restore public funding for abortion for low-income women.
  • Repeal restrictions that serve to delay abortions and increase the health risk to women.
  • Protect women’s right to give informed consent to abortion based on unbiased, medically accurate information.
  • Guarantee comprehensive sex education for young people that teaches both the benefits of delaying intercourse and the importance of using contraceptives.
  • Ensure public and private insurance coverage of contraceptives.
  • Ensure convenient access to contraceptive services and supplies.

"Effective contraceptives backed up by safe and legal abortion have allowed American women to become equal partners with men in modern society and must remain an integral part of health care for all women," says Dr. Camp. "Sadly, although abortion remains legal, a two-tiered system is already emerging in our country. Wealthier women have quick, convenient access to contraceptives and safe, early abortions, while poor women are less able to prevent pregnancies through contraception and are then forced to jump over a series of obstacles in order to obtain an abortion. This is turning back the clock on all the gains women have made in recent decades. We need to do more, not less, to give women control over their reproductive lives."

Abortion in Women’s Lives, by Heather D. Boonstra, Rachel Benson Gold, Cory L. Richards and Lawrence B. Finer, pulls together the most recent data and analysis on abortion and unintended pregnancy in the United States into one comprehensive resource. It details legal abortion's safety record since the 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, and rebuts with scientific evidence persistent misinformation on abortion’s long-term physical and mental health impact. The report also demonstrates legalization’s impact on abortion timing: Today, nine in 10 abortions are performed in the first trimester.

Click here for more information on abortion in the United States.

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