Abortions Occurring Earlier in Pregnancy
and Fewer Teens Obtaining Abortions
The rate of abortion in the United States is at its lowest level since 1974, having declined 33% from a peak of 29 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in 1980 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004. However, this overall trend masks large disparities in rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion across demographic subgroups, according to Trends in the Characteristics of Women Obtaining Abortions, 1974 to 2004.
“The analysis found positive trends, but highlights several issues of concern,” said Sharon Camp, Guttmacher Institute president and CEO. “Many Americans will welcome the news that there are fewer abortions, particularly among teens, and that a larger proportion of abortions are now happening very early in pregnancy. But at the same time, abortions are becoming more concentrated among women of color and low-income women. This presents a clear challenge to policymakers to redouble their efforts to improve access to subsidized contraceptive services for these women, thereby helping them to prevent the unintended pregnancies behind these abortions from occurring in the first place.”
Although abortion rates have declined among all racial and ethnic groups, large disparities persist, with Hispanic and black women obtaining abortions at rates three and five times higher, respectively, than non-Hispanic white women. Between 1994 and 2004, the abortion rate for Hispanic women fell by 20%, from 35 to 28 per 1,000 women aged 15–44. This was less than the 30% decline among non-Hispanic white women (from 15 to 11 per 1,000), but more than the 15% decline among black women (from 59 to 50 per 1,000). These widely varying rates reflect disparities in unintended pregnancy, as well as in access to the most effective contraceptive methods.
“Behind virtually every abortion is an unintended pregnancy. And because women of color are much more likely to experience unintended pregnancies than any other group, they are also more likely to seek and obtain abortions,” said Rachel Jones, Guttmacher Institute senior research associate. “Previous Guttmacher research has found that unintended pregnancy and abortion rates are also increasing among poor and low-income women. Policymakers at the state and federal levels should be asking themselves what can be done to help poor women and women of color prevent unintended pregnancies and achieve better health outcomes more generally.”
The study also looked at trends in abortion by various other characteristics, including age, gestation and motherhood. As compared with 1973, the typical woman obtaining an abortion today is older, more likely to have children, less likely to be married and more likely to be nonwhite. Prior Guttmacher research has also documented that most women obtaining abortions are poor or low-income. Among the report’s key findings:
- Age: Over the past three decades, the proportion of abortions obtained by teens has dropped steadily, from 33% in 1974 to 25% in 1989 to 17% in 2004. In 2004, more than half of all abortions (57%) were obtained by women in their twenties. Teen abortion rates have also declined—by more than 50%—from 42 per 1,000 women aged 15¬–19 in 1989 to 20 in 2004. A large part of the decline in abortion among teens—which began long before abstinence-only sex education programs began receiving federal funding—is attributable to increased use of contraceptives and use of more effective methods.
- Gestation: Overall, trends in second-trimester abortions (those occurring after 12 weeks) have changed little, notwithstanding improved technology and increasing state restrictions. The majority (89%) of U.S. abortions occur during the first trimester, and the proportion of very early abortions (those at seven weeks or earlier, when the procedure is safest) has increased substantially, from 16% in 1994 to 28% in 2004. The continuing shift to earlier abortions most likely reflects increased availability and use of home pregnancy detection kits, greater availability of early surgical procedures and increasing use of medication abortion.
- Motherhood: In 2004, 60% of women having abortions already had children, up from 50% in 1989 and 46% in 1974. Part of the reason for this shift is that fewer teenagers and young women are having abortions than did in previous years. Previous Guttmacher analysis has found that women who are already mothers cite responsibility for their children and families as one of the primary reasons for obtaining an abortion.
Trends in the Characteristics of Women Obtaining Abortions, 1974 to 2004, by Stanley Henshaw and Kathryn Kost, also includes detailed state tables, including trends in the number and rate of abortions by state of occurrence and state of residence, and trends in the number of abortion providers by state. Click here for an extended version of the report with additional supplementary tables.