The face of women who have abortions has shifted significantly in the past 30 years, with relatively fewer white childless teenagers and more mothers of color in their 20s and 30s opting to terminate their pregnancies, according to a report being released today.
In the first comprehensive analysis since 1974 of demographic characteristics of women who have abortions, researchers found that the overall drop in the abortion rate has been marked by a dramatic shift, declining more among white women and teenagers than among black and Hispanic and older women.
"There's been a real change in the picture of women who get abortions," said Rachel Jones, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a private nonprofit reproductive health research organization considered to be one of the most authoritative sources on abortion trends. "This is the first time anyone has looked at this in a comprehensive way."
Jones and her colleagues analyzed annual data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by periodic surveys that Guttmacher has conducted of abortion providers between 1974 and 2004.
The analysis confirmed previous reports that the abortion rate fell to the lowest level since 1974, dropping 33 percent from a peak of 29 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 1980 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004.
During that period, the proportion of abortions obtained by women younger than 20 dropped steadily, falling from 33 percent in 1974 to 17 percent in 2004. For those younger than 18, it fell from 15 percent of all abortions in 1974 to 6 percent in 2004. At the same time, the proportion of abortions obtained by women in their 20s increased from 50 percent to 57 percent, and the share done for women age 30 and older rose from 18 percent to 27 percent.
Although abortion rates have declined among all racial and ethnic groups, large disparities persist, with Hispanic and black women having the procedure at rates three to five times the rate of white women.
In 2004, there were 10.5 abortions per 1,000 white women ages 15 to 44, compared with 28 per 1,000 Hispanic women of that age and 50 per 1,000 black women. That translates into approximately 1 percent of white women having an abortion in 2004, compared with 3 percent of Hispanic women and 5 percent of black women. Jones attributed that to the focus on reducing teenage pregnancy and on increasing contraceptive use.
"We've made the most important progress in reducing teen pregnancy and abortion rate, [rather] than reducing unintended pregnancy in older women," Jones said.
The proportion of all abortions performed for white women decreased from 45 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2004, while the proportion for Hispanics increased from 16 percent to 22 percent and the proportion for black women rose from 35 percent to 37 percent.
"We know from other research that having lower income makes a woman more likely to get an abortion. Women of color tend to be lower-income, and so in turn when confronted with an unintended pregnancy are more likely to have an abortion," Jones said.
The proportion of all abortions performed for women who already had a child increased from 46 percent in 1974 to 60 percent in 2004, reflecting the trend of women who cannot afford to have another child turning to abortion, Jones said.
The findings indicate "we need to figure out efforts to reduce unintended pregnancy, not only among teenagers but among all women, and in particularly women of color," she said. "A lot of policymakers are stuck 30 years back when most women getting abortions are teenagers and college students, and that isn't so much the case these days."
Others said the findings underscore the need to increase access to contraception for poor women.
"Birth control is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies," said Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Unfortunately there's a large number of uninsured people in this country, and if you are uninsured you are less likely to have access to affordable health care, including affordable birth control."
Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama who works with the Family Research Council, attributed the drop in teenage pregnancies to a combination of factors, including increased contraceptive use, more teenagers delaying sex and state laws requiring parental consent.
"The states with the most active pro-life laws have seen the biggest abortion declines," he said.