Why Women Have Abortions - 2005

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Many years ago we posted an article about a study done by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in which they asked women why they have abortions. That study was done in 1987. Have things changed since then? No one is collecting statistics on this on a regular basis, but Guttmacher did do another study in 2004. I am not aware of anything more recent. So how did things change from 1987 to 2004?

In both studies, Guttmacher asked women to list all the reasons that contributed to their decision to get an abortion. Looking just at what each woman said was her primary reason:

Primary Reason 2004 1987
Not ready for a(nother) child/timing is wrong 25 27
Can't afford a baby now 23 21
Have completed my childbearing/have other people depending on me/children are grown 19 8
Don't want to be a single mother/am having relationship problems 8 13
Don't feel mature enough to raise a(nother) child/feel too young 7 11
Would interfere with education or career plans 4 10
Physical problem with my health 4 3
Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus 3 3
Was a victim of rape <0.5 1
Husband or partner wants me to have an abortion <0.5 1
Parents want me to have an abortion <0.5 <0.5
Don't want people to know I had sex or got pregnant <0.5 1
Other 6 1

Note: Particularly sharp-eyed readers may observe that the 1987 numbers we quote here do not quite match what we gave in our original article. This is not because we altered the numbers, but because the authors of the study did. The 1987 study included a disproportionate number of women having later-term abortions. The authors of the 2004 study adjusted the 1987 numbers to reflect the number of women actually having abortions at various stages of pregnancy. This does not appear to have made a great deal of difference, but, etc. As we don't have the raw data, we can only quote what is given in the published papers.

As you can see, there is not a lot of difference. The number of women saying that they already have all the children they want or can handle went from 8% to 19%. This probably at least partly reflects the fact that the average age of a woman having an abortion has gone up. In the 1987 survey, 18% of the women were 30 or older, while in the 2004 survey, 23% were. The flip side of this is that the number saying they were too young to have a baby fell from 11% to 7%, perhaps for the same reason.

This is each women's self-reporting of the reason for her abortion. It is fair to speculate that if a woman is having an abortion for minor or selfish reasons, she might exagerrate some or even invent more serious reasons to justify her decision. So this study may overstate the seriousness of the problems that led women to have abortions to at least some extent.

The Guttmacher Institute is a pro-abortion organization, named after an early president of Planned Parenthood, so it is extremely unlikely that it would show any pro-life bias.

But let's accept the survey results as given. Pro-choice advocates routinely justify abortion on the basis of the "hard cases": rape, incest, deformed baby, pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother. What percentage of abortions are done for these reasons? The study lists health problems among the reasons women gave for their abortions, but it doesn't give any detail on what those health problems were. They mention that the maternal health problems ranged from cancer and cystic fibrosis to morning sickness. But for the sake of discussion, let's count all of the cited health problems as serious enough to qualify as a "hard case". They didn't even mention "incest" on their chart of "primary reasons". As they give "<0.5%" for several reasons, this would seem to indicate that incest was well under 0.5%. They do include it on the list of all reason at <0.5%, so let's use that number here just to be fair.

Given all that, let's summarize the above chart:

Reason 2004 1987
Rape <0.5 <0.5
Incest <0.5 <0.5
Mother has health problem 4 3
Baby has health problem 3 3
Mother has social or financial problems 92 93

Or to look at it graphically:

Now don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that these social and financial problems are all frivolous. Sometimes they are legitimate, serious problems. But ... under what other circumstances would we accept the idea that one person has the right to kill another person to solve his or her financial problems?

Source: Finer et al, "Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives", Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2005, 37(3):110-118

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