Abortion Statistics and Trends over the Past Thirty Years
Out of the Long Dark Night
By Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D.
NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research
While the number of abortions skyrocketed when abortion was legalized in 1973, peaking at 1.6 million in 1990, fortunately the annual totals have since steadily declined. Today, that death toll is believed to be in the neighborhood of 1.3 million. All told, NRLC projects that there have been over 43 million unborn babies that have lost their lives since the U.S. Supreme Court made Roe v. Wade (and its companion case Doe v. Bolton) the law of the land.
These lost lives are the numbers that matter most in the end. An examination of that data in more detail, however, tells us not only how we got here, but where we might be going in the future. And what it suggests is that the long dark night may be coming to an end.
While it was the Court's decisions in Roe and Doe that legalized abortion in all fifty states, through all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason whatsoever, there were abortions done before Roe. How many there were and under what conditions has always been in dispute.
Abortion's advocates have claimed that there were as many as a million abortions a year before Roe, with as many as 5,000 to 10,000 maternal deaths. There is no evidence that supports either assertion.
As to the latter figure, Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, now a pro-life stalwart but in the 1960s and 1970s a key player in the effort to eliminate all protective abortion statutes, wrote in Aborting America, "I knew the figures were totally false."
Further evidence to demonstrate that pro-abortionists exaggerated the number of abortions prior to Roe comes from both official government estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and those from Planned Parenthood's special research affiliate, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). According to the CDC there were 615,831 abortions in 1973 - - Roe's first year - - while AGI estimated 744,600 abortions. (AGI's numbers are more accurate because AGI more aggressively seeks out information from "abortion providers.") If the advocates of abortion were right about their figure of one million pre-Roe abortions a year, this would mean that legalization sparked a sudden decline, which defies all sense! In fact, what is clear is that Roe ignited a huge increase in the number of abortions.
The Early Years (1973-1979)
When the Supreme Court issued its Roe and Doe decisions, the effect of the seven-member majority's rulings was to place no real limits on the way, timing, or reasons an abortion might be performed. There were no waiting periods, no informed consent requirements, no parental involvement laws, no laws banning partial-birth abortions or any other technique that survived the Court's sweeping decision. Rather than discourage abortion, many states actually went on to fund abortion, as did the federal government prior to passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, not only paying for the decision to take life, but also lending their tacit moral blessing.
Under the circumstances, the skyrocketing numbers of abortions in these early years are not surprising. In the seven-year period from 1973 to 1979, the number of abortions more than doubled, whether we take the CDC numbers (from 615,831 to 1,251,921) or AGI's numbers (from 744,600 to 1,497,700).
Abortion rates (the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44) and ratios (the number of abortions per 1,000 live births) also exploded in the immediate aftermath of Roe.
The abortion rate stood at 14/1,000 women of reproductive age in 1973, but reached 24/1,000 in 1979. The ratio of abortion to live births stood at 196 abortions to 1,000 live births in 1973 and almost doubled by 1979, reaching 358 per 1,000 live births.
Population increases fueled by the baby boom generation's coming of age might account for some increase, but not of the magnitude seen here. For example, while the female population of reproductive age (15-44) grew by 24.4% from 1970 to 1980, abortion totals increased by more than four times that figure - - a whopping 101% increase from 1973 to 1979.
Cultural factors, such as the sexual revolution ignited in the 1960s, surely contributed to the increase, but what fueled the explosion was probably the availability of abortion itself as an automatic "solution" if an unplanned pregnancy occurred. An aggressive abortion industry marketed itself as a vehicle of "liberation" for women and played upon widescale ignorance about fetal development ("it's only a blob of tissue") to court increasing numbers of customers and allies.
Pro-life victories toward the end of the 1970s helped slow the increase, but the Supreme Court kept stronger protections from being enacted. The Hyde Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, was upheld by the Court in 1980, the first real limit on abortion to clear the Supreme Court hurdle. At the same time, however, the Court rejected efforts by states to require parental or spousal consent and rejected one state's attempt to require doctors to attempt to save babies who survived the abortion.
While the highest abortion rates and ratios would be recorded in this decade, the steady, rapid rise experienced in the years immediately following Roe largely leveled off in the 1980s. According to AGI, abortion crossed the 1.5 million a year mark for the first time in 1980 with 1,553,900 and then fluctuated between that figure and the high for the decade of 1,590,800 reported in 1988.
The CDC reported its highest abortion rate at the beginning of the decade (25 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1980), though rates throughout the rest of the 1980s never dipped below 23 per 1,000. The U.S. abortion ratio reached its peak in 1984, with a figure of 364 abortions for every thousand live births. After dropping into the 350s for a couple of years, that ratio began a steady decline in 1987 that lasted throughout the 1990s.
More Truth, Fewer Abortions (1990-1999)
Annual abortion totals reached their peak in 1990, topping the 1.6 million mark, but from that point on showed a significant and steady decline. By decade's end, the annual figure was closer to 1.3 million, the lowest in over 20 years.
Abortion rates, which hovered between 23 and 25 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age throughout the 1980s, finally dropped to 20 per thousand or fewer by decade's end.1 The drop in the abortion ratio was even more striking, dropping from 344 abortions/1,000 live births to less than 300/1,000 by 1999.2 The last time similarly low figures were recorded was 1976.
In theory, part of the decline in raw annual totals may have been due to population shifts as the population bubble of the baby boom generation aged and moved beyond their reproductive years. This would mean fewer women in the reproductive age range and fewer pregnancies and fewer abortions if all other factors stayed the same. In the same way, any behaviorial or cultural factors that impacted the basic number of pregnancies could have effected the number of subsequent abortions.
Available data indicate that such factors may have been responsible for some, but not all of the decline. The reduction in the abortion rate from 24/1,000 women of reproductive age in 1990 to 20/1,000 or less by the decade's end indicates that abortion became a less common feature in the lives of women who could have become pregnant as the decade progressed. The drop in the abortion ratio from 344 per every thousand live births to less than 300 per thousand in just 10 years shows the decline in raw numbers was due not merely to there being fewer pregnancies, but to the fact that a substantially smaller proportion of pregnant women were choosing to abort their babies.
So what made the difference? Pro-life legislation, pro-life education, and pro-life alternatives.
Pro-life legislation passed during the decade certainly contributed to the decline. Eighteen states passed informed consent or "right to know" laws since 1989, most of them still in effect despite vigorous legal challenges. All told, 24 states have parental involvement laws in effect, requiring either that a minor's parents be notified or that a teen receive her parent's consent to obtain an abortion. Other states have put waiting periods in place. Many of these laws were passed in the early 1990s.
Twenty-seven states passed partial-birth abortion bans in the 20th century's last decade. Congress voted three times to ban the procedure but vetoes and threats of vetoes by pro-abortion President Bill Clinton assured that no partial-birth abortion ban became law. Though the Supreme Court struck down these state bans in June 2000, the debate and passage of these laws was enormously effective in drawing attention to the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of those who defend this barbaric procedure.
The educational programs of 3,000 right to life chapters throughout the nation have taught the truth about abortion and the humanity of the unborn child wherever an audience has gathered in venues as diverse as a school or a church or a fair booth. This has certainly been a major factor in turning countless women (and men) away from abortion. This continual grassroots educational effort has also helped keep abortion from gaining cultural acceptance, as its proponents had predicted in 1973.
The phenomenal growth and increasing sophistication of pregnancy care centers across the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s also had an impact. While there were just a handful in operation when Roe became the law of the land, current estimates are that there were some 3,000 such centers in operation by 2000.
Pregnancy care centers offer women real alternatives to abortion, giving information, encouragement, and practical assistance that allow both woman and child a better life. One trend seen at centers during the 1990s was the increasing addition of medical services, such as ultrasound, to the pregnancy center's offerings.
Ultrasounds, considered a technology of unknown safety and efficacy by the National Institutes of Health as late as 1984, became commonplace in the 1990s, so that nearly every woman (or man) in the country with a pregnant relative, friend, or office mate saw for themselves the humanity of the developing child. Detailed sonograms, showing the baby active and moving, along with fetal heartbeat stethoscopes, picking up the "whoosh-whoosh" of a heart that began beating as early as the third week of pregnancy, exposed truths the abortion industry had suppressed for years.
While the decade began with the highest annual figure of abortions ever recorded in the U.S., the final tally for the 1990s shows that, in the end, the truth was finally beginning to win out.
Into the Twenty-First Century (2000-present)
There is not a lot of hard data on abortion available for 2000-2002, except for a short report on the demographic characteristics of women choosing abortion in 2000 appearing in the September/ October 2002 edition of the journal Perspectives in Sexual and Reproductive Health (formerly Family Planning Perspectives), and a preliminary AGI estimate of 1,313,300 abortions for 2000 given in that article.
Trends have improved in recent years, but there is concern that the decline could be stalling. Abortion totals dropped by over 275,000 from 1990 to 1997, an average of about 40,000 fewer abortions per year. But if AGI's latest estimate holds up, the drop from 1997 to 2000 was only about 15,000, or just 5,000 a year. Better than an increase, to be sure, but not as good as what was happening in the mid-1990s.
AGI's demographic data for 2000 shows the usual breakdowns - - that the majority of women having abortions are unmarried, in their 20s, etc. - - but also reveals some surprising facts about the women currently having abortions. Over 6 in 10 (60.9%) of the women having abortions in AGI's 2000 study reported having had one or more previous live births. This indicates abortions being done less to avoid shame or discovery and more because a woman simply feels overwhelmed by the prospect of bearing and caring for another child. This is a trend that will need to be addressed.
The latest CDC figures do show that an increasing number of abortions are being done at the earlier stages of pregnancy, at six weeks' gestation or earlier. According to the CDC, 21.9% of all abortions in 1999 were done at six weeks or prior. This is due to the promotion of new surgical techniques such as manual vacuum aspiration and new chemical abortion methods such as RU486 and methotrexate, all of which work only in the early weeks of pregnancy.
Stung by understated but fully accurate drawings that show how partial-birth abortions take the lives of unborn babies, abortionists have been anxious to move the debate to earlier stages of pregnancy. Approval by the federal government of RU486, the French abortion pill, in during the last year of the Clinton Administration may give further impetus to this shift. Pro-lifers will need to be prepared to continue their vigorous defense of the sanctity of life at all stages of development.
The election of President George W. Bush, a compassionate man who has respect for human life at all stages, provides an inspiration for pro-lifers to carry on their vitally important work.
1. Ascertaining the precise abortion rate for the U.S. became difficult when four states stopped reporting abortion data to the CDC in 1998 (see box). That rate was 20 in 1997, the last year for which data was available from all reporting areas, though data from the remaining 48 reporting areas (46 states plus New York City and the District of Columbia) show a figure of 17 per 1,000 reproductive age women for 1997 through 1999.
2. As with the abortion rate, data for the calculation of the abortion ratio was truncated by the loss of reporting data from California, Oklahoma, Alaska, and New Hampshire in 1998. The abortion ratio with those states was 306 per 1,000 live births in 1997, but 274 per thousand with those states subtracted for the same year. Figures for those 48 remaining reporting areas continued to decline in subsequent years, dropping to just 256 abortions per thousand in 1999.
Data Sources: CDC and AGI
There are two basic sources for abortion statistics in America: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a government agency, and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a special research affiliate of Planned Parenthood. While their numbers do not always match up, they do roughly track each other, and differences in the data reported mean valuable information can be gained from both sources.
The CDC relies on data released by state health departments (the 50 states plus New York City and the District of Columbia). Because reporting requirements and enforcement of those requirements differ from state to state, a lot of abortions are missed. CDC figures have typically been some 11-12% lower than estimates by AGI.
AGI bases its numbers on direct surveys of "abortion providers," making their figures the generally more accepted ones. AGI, however, does not perform its surveys every year, and does not always collect or publish the data the CDC does on method, weeks of gestation, state of residence, etc. This means the two sources are best used together to obtain a more complete picture of abortion in America.
The dropping of four states from the CDC's dataset in 1998, however, makes comparisons difficult and complicates the tracking of trends. The reason for the omission of Oklahoma, Alaska, New Hampshire, and California (one of the states reporting the highest figures in past surveys) has never been given.
However, because of these gaps, just looking at a graph plotting the numbers gives the appearance of a much larger drop off than actually occurred between 1997 and 1998. Nonetheless, because we have numbers for the remaining states both before and after the change, we do have every reason to believe that the national decline seen prior to 1997 continued on in 1998 and 1999.