US Abortion Rate Lowest Since Legalization; Racial Disparities Persist

Emily Douglas

The 2004 abortion rate in the United States is the lowest it has been since national legalization, but the overall rate masks stark disparities in the abortion rate among different racial and ethnic groups.

The 2004 abortion rate in the United States is the lowest it
has been since national legalization, but the overall rate masks stark
disparities in the abortion rate among different racial and ethnic groups, a
study released today by the Guttmacher Institute found.  Hispanic women obtained abortion at a rate
three times the rate of non-Hispanic white women; the rate among black women
was five times the rate of non-Hispanic white women.  But abortion rates have fallen since 1980 for
all racial and ethnic groups – white women saw a drop of 30%, Hispanic women
20%, and black women 15%.

Why the dramatic racial disparities? "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," Rachel Jones, Guttmacher Institute
senior research associate, said in a statement.

Study authors Stanley Henshaw
and Kathryn Koch note that while the abortion rate in the US is now comparable
to the rate in other developed nations, the wider economic inequality at home,
"the size of the economically deprived population, the number and size of
ethnic minority groups, and the extent to which population subgroups
differ from the majority in their access to jobs, housing, education and health
services" results in a wide disparity in the abortion rate.  The study observes that black women have a
very high rate of unintended pregnancy – 70% – and suggests that lower levels
of contraceptive use, higher failer rates and the use of less effective methods
likely accounts for the disparity in the unintended pregnancy rate.  Previous
Guttmacher research done by Susan Cohen
shows that 15% of black women
were not using contraception and were at risk for unintended pregnancy,
compared to 12% of Hispanic women and 9% of white women. In a recent article
for Rewire, Dr.
Melissa Gilliam, analyzing the higher abortion rate among African-American
women, wrote
, "Behind virtually every abortion is an unintended pregnancy.
African American women have higher abortion rates than their white peers
because they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancy–three times higher
than those of white women."

But the high rate
of abortion and of unintended pregnancy among black women must be put into
context of disparities in health outcomes across the board, underscoring the
need for reproductive justice advocates to focus on all aspect of access to
care for women of color.  As Dr. Gilliam
notes, "…there’s more to the story. Across the board, African Americans often
have worse sexual and reproductive health outcomes than people from other
racial groups. For example, we experience much higher rates of sexually
transmitted infections. These disparate rates reflect broader health
disparities that can be seen in high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease
or cancer."  Dr. Gilliam calls for a stop to funding for
ineffective abstinence-only programming, which offers no accurate information
about contraceptives, and a move toward comprehensive sex ed for young
adults.  She also points out that
increased funding for Title X services such as contraceptives, STI testing and
counseling is proven to prevent pregnancies. Writes the Guttmacher Institute’s Susan Cohen, "Reproductive health policies…must be considered in the broader health, social and
economic context of women’s lives — especially the lives of poor and
low income women who are disproportionately minority — and interconnected
with other critical life needs and aspirations."

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Guttmacher’s study also produced a wealth of data about the
age of women seeking abortion, the gestational age at time of termination, and
the availability of abortion nationwide. 
The overwhelming majority of abortions occur in the first trimester
(89%) and despite decreasing accessibility and increased state restriction and
regulation, the rate of second-trimester abortion is virtually unchanged.  Only 0.2% of abortion are sought
after 24 weeks; 1.4% occur after 20 weeks.

The share of abortions obtained by women who had already
given birth climbed dramatically since the 1980s, and by 2004, 60% of women
seeking abortion had already given birth. The study notes that while 47% of
abortions obtained in 2004 were sought by women who had already had an
abortion, there was no indication that women were using abortion as a primary
method of birth control.

Ninety percent or more counties in 26 states have no known
abortion provider.

The abortion rate peaked in 1980, at a rate of 29 abortions
per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44.  In 2004,
the most recent year for which there is data, 20 women per 1,000 obtained

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