< Keeping track of abortions; Method of reducing their numbers

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Abortion statistics

Terminology. How abortions are monitored.
Methods of reducing the abortion rate.

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Abortion terminology:

  • Definitions: Physicians, and pro-choice advocates agree on the definition of such common terms as "abortion" and "pregnancy." Pro-lifers and religious conservatives often assign different meanings to these terms.

    For example:

    • Pro-lifers often use the term "human life" as equivalent to "human person," and believe that it starts during the process of conception.

    • Pro-choicers often use the terms:

      • "human life" to represent any living matter with human DNA. This includes an ovum, spermatozoon, zygote, embryo, fetus, newborn through to adulthood, perhaps even skin scraping and lung cancer.

      • "human person" to refer to human life that has achieved personhood. They differ on when this happens:
        • Circa 26 weeks when the fetal brain's higher functions first turn on, and the fetus becomes sentient -- aware of its surroundings.
        • When the fetus is half emerged from the woman's body.
        • When the newborn is severed from its mother.
        • etc.

    This disagreement about when human life becomes a human person drives essentially all of the conflict over abortion in North America.

    We use medical definitions in this section of our web site.

  • Emergency Contraception (EC) drastically effects abortion data. EC usually inhibits pregnancy by preventing ovulation -- the release of an ovum from an ovary. However, if ovulation has already happened, EC prevents conception. Finally, if conception has already taken place, there is a remote possibility that it can prevent the fertilized ovum from implanting in the wall of the uterus.

    • Most religious conservatives define pregnancy as starting at conception. By this definition, in some cases, EC can terminate a pregnancy and is thus considered to be an abortifacient.

    • Physicians, sources of abortion data, like the federal government's Center for Disease Control and the independent Alan Guttmacher Institute, etc. generally define pregnancy as starting at implantation. Thus the effects of EC are generally ignored in the statistics. Their abortion data is based only on surgical and medical abortions.

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How abortions are monitored:

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors abortion data in the U.S. as supplied by states, the District of Columbian and New York City. Among the data that they report annually are three key indicators:

  1. The total number of abortions performed in a given year. This quantity is of the greatest interest to pro-life supporters. To most of them, every abortion represents the murder of a human person. However, this number lacks precision:

    • Some states will occasionally withhold data from the CDC; this will artificially reduce the total of reported abortions.

    • The total number of abortions does not include illegal abortions. These are believed to be on the increase as more states require underage women to inform or gain consent from a parent or guardian before they can obtain a legal abortion. Some young women, fearing physical assault, loss of support, or the emotionally and physically devastating effect that news of her pregnancy might have on their parents, prefer to risk the hazards of an illegal abortion rather than involve their parents in a legal abortion. Occasionally one will die as a result of lack of access to a legal abortion.

    • The value does not include the number of abortions performed outside the U.S. to American women, or performed in the U.S. to foreign women. Some women who live in U.S. border states which have poor access to clinics or which have legal restrictions on abortions slip across the border into Canada or Mexico for their abortion.

  2. The abortion rate: This is expressed as the number of abortions performed per thousand women of childbearing age (15 to 44) in a given year. It also has some major disadvantages:

    • It is the ratio of two numbers: the total number of abortions and the total number of women in this age group. Both values can only be approximated. Thus, the abortion rate value is subject to greater inaccuracy than the number of abortions.

    • Since women who have abortions are mostly unmarried, the abortion rate will fluctuate from year to year depending upon marriage rates, divorce rates, and the distribution of ages at which women marry.

    • Since women who have abortions are mostly under 24 years of age, this value will also fluctuate from year to year depending on the country's age distribution of women which in turn depends upon birth rates in earlier decades.

  3. The abortion ratio: This is defined in two different ways:

    • The Guttmacher Institute reports this number as the ratio of abortions to live births, expressed as a ratio or percentage.

    • The CDC reports the number the number of abortions per 1,000 live births.

    One of the main sources for abortion data is the Guttmacher Institute. Their website states:

    "Thus, if you see an abortion ratio number on the order of 24% or 0.24, it most probably refers to the Guttmacher Institute's definition. If you see a number on the order of 240, it probably refers to the CDC's definition."

    Whatever definition is used for the abortion ratio, the value has some of the disadvantages of the previous two measurements. However, it can be argued that this value, more than any other, reveals whether abortion is becoming more or less accepted in the country. If one overlooks the possibility of miscarriages, and hysterotomies, then a pregnant woman has two choices: to have an abortion or to give birth to a newborn. The ratio of abortions to live births gives a good measure of how acceptable abortion is to American women.

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Methods of reducing the number, rate, and ratio of abortions:

As a general rule of thumb, about one half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. That is: of the approximately 6.4 million pregnancies each year, "... at the time of conception, she wanted to have the child later or wanted to have no more children." A 2006 study reported that 51% of pregnancies were intended; 49% were unintended. 3

According to the Guttmacher Institute:

"About half of unintended pregnancies occur among the 10% of women at risk of an unintended pregnancy who do not use birth control (particularly teenagers and older married women) or who use a method only sporadically. The rest occur among women who practice contraception to prevent an unwanted pregnancy."

"Given American women's relatively high rates of unplanned pregnancy, it should not be surprising that their abortion rate -- 23 per 1,000 women of reproductive age -- is undeniably high by the standards of developed nations." 4

About one half of the unintended pregnancies are terminated by an elective abortion. The 2006 study found that if miscarriages were excluded, some 48% of unintended pregnancies were terminated in an abortion; 52% resulted in live births. 3

In summary:

"Of the approximately 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States in 2001, 3.1 million were unintended. Of these, approximately 1.4 million resulted in births, 1.3 million in abortions and 0.430 million in miscarriages." 3

A number of ways to reduce the number of abortions have been suggested:

  • Reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies, through:
    • Better sex-education,
    • Greater availability of contraceptives,
    • Providing greater awareness of emergency contraceptives (EC)
    • Providing easier access to EC.
    • Promoting abstinence.

  • Reducing the percentage of unwanted pregnancies that result in abortion, by:
    • Reducing access to abortions, thus making it difficult for women to obtain an abortion.
    • Removing economic and other roadblocks in order to make a live birth a more viable option for many pregnant women.

Pro-life groups have concentrated almost entirely on reducing the number of abortions by reducing women's access and by promoting abstinence only sex-ed courses in schools. Most oppose comprehensive sex-ed, in which abstinence taught and birth control is explained for students who wish to become sexually active. They also oppose access to EC and other contraceptives for unmarried persons.

Pro-choice groups have committed most of their effort in counteracting the effects of pro-life groups; they have also made some effort to promote comprehensive sex-ed, access to contraceptives and EC and providing assistance to pregnant women in need of support.

More information on reducing the abortion rate.

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Another measurement:

One number that is rarely reported is the percentage of women at various ages who have had one or more abortions during their lifetimes. For all adult women, the value is approximately 42%. This value would be an even better measure of the acceptability of abortions in the U.S., if it were reported widely.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Get 'In the Know': Questions About Pregnancy, Contraception and Abortion," Guttmacher Institute, at: http://www.guttmacher.org/
  2. Laurie D, Elam-Evans, et al., "Abortion Surveillance --- United States, 2000" CDC, at: http://www.cdc.gov/
  3. "An overview of abortion in the United States," Guttmacher Institute, 2009-JAN, at: http://www.guttmacher.org/ This is a PDF file.
  4. "Abortion in Context: United States and Worldwide," Guttmacher Institute, 1999-MAY, at: http://www.guttmacher.org/

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Site navigation:
Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Abortion > Facts > Statistics > here

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Copyright © 2003 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JAN-4
Latest update: 2010-JUN-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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