U.S. Abortion Rate Holds Steady

Tell Me More continues its focus today on sexual health in America with new figures that show the number of abortion procedures in this country. That number — on the decline for nearly two decades — has now plateaued. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rachel Jones, lead author of a study from the nonprofit reproductive health research center, the Guttmacher Institute. They discuss the changing demographics of women who seek out abortions.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As we continue our focus on reproductive and sexual health today, we'll next turn to the startling incidents of HIV infection in black men. We'll hear from an African American man in Milwaukee who decided to speak out about living with HIV/AIDS. He wants to fight the stigma that he says still affects the lives of those with the disease. And we'll talk about a startling statistic in Milwaukee. Officials estimate that up to 41 percent of black men who have sex with other men are infected with HIV and we'll talk about why that might be.

But first, we want to conclude our examination of abortion issues as the country marks 38 years since the landmark case Roe v. Wade. And we wanted to know about the latest numbers. How many women are reaching out to doctors who perform abortions, who are they, and why has the number been falling over the last two decades?

With us now, Rachel Jones, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute. That's a nonprofit research center with one of the most comprehensive, if not, the most comprehensive database on abortion in this country. Rachel Jones, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. RACHEL JONES (Senior Research Associate, Guttmacher Institute): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a picture of women who have abortions in this country? What do their circumstances tend to be?

Dr. JONES: The majority of women having abortions are in their 20s. Second most common age group is women in their 30s. Most women having abortions have one or more children, 61 percent are mothers. Most of them are poor or low income and most of them are unmarried.

So, kind of the composite picture that comes out of this when you look at all these characteristics, there's a lot of women getting abortions are poor single mothers who are just struggling to make ends meet and take care of the children that they do have now. And I think that's - those types of circumstances are something that a lot of people aren't aware of.

MARTIN: Now, you're just out with a new study that offers an understanding of abortion in America. Would you just tell us, what's the overall number in recent years, and how does it compare with past years?

Dr. JONES: Two weeks ago, we released the newest abortion figures and these were for 2008. We found that there were 1.2 million abortions in that year, an abortion rate of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women. What was notable to us about these new numbers is that it was virtually unchanged the last time we had done this census of abortion providers was in 2005. And there was virtually no change in the number of abortions or the abortion rate during that three-year time period.

And the reason that's notable is because we were coming off an almost two decade long decline in abortion incidents. That since 1990, every year since 1990 to 2005, there were fewer abortions and the abortion rate went down. So the fact that the decline in abortion seems to have stalled is meaningful, we think.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

Dr. JONES: Well, and so this was a descriptive study and we weren't able to look at any of the causal factors behind it. We do have a couple of hypotheses. One being, we know from recent data that were released, there were no substantial improvements in contraceptive use among women of reproductive age. Or perhaps it's not surprising that the decline in abortion rate kind of stalled out.

Additionally, we know that in the 1990s in particular that one of the main drivers behind the decline in the abortion rate was the decline in teen pregnancy.

MARTIN: In fact, in the report you say that 18 percent of the women obtaining abortions are teenagers.

Dr. JONES: Right.

MARTIN: And so, what's your sense of - what was behind that long-term decline in the number of abortions being performed in this country?

Dr. JONES: Again, really, one of the main drivers was the decline in teen pregnancy. And, again, another analysis that came out of the Guttmacher Institute, as well as some of our colleagues at Columbia University, was that it was really substantial improvements in contraceptive use among adolescents. Also, you know, fewer teens having sex.

But the main thing contributing to the decline in teen pregnancy, including teen abortions, was improved contraception use among adolescents. We put a lot of work into helping teens not get pregnant before they were ready to. And we did, you know, we did a pretty good job.

MARTIN: What is the percentage of pregnancies that are unintended in this country overall? And what percentage of those pregnancies end in abortion?

Dr. JONES: Right. So, about half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and about half of those result in abortion. So, definitely whenever you talk about abortion it's most appropriate to place it in the context of unintended pregnancy. Because, again, a lot of women who find themselves pregnant when they didn't expect to, go on to have babies, you know, before they're ready to.

MARTIN: And, finally, I'm wondering if the variation in the incidents of abortion has anything to do with how we feel about it or how our opinion about it, our ongoing opinion about abortion, or do you think it's mainly driven by other factors?

Dr. JONES: And this is something that I don't necessarily have hard and fast research to speak to, but I do think that our anti-abortion sentiment that's so pronounced in the U.S. does have some impact on people and particularly, you know, health care providers willing to provide abortion services.

And certainly there are some women who, because of their beliefs about abortion would never have one. But there are also plenty of women in abortion clinics who, you know, until that moment anyways, didn't believe in abortion and think it should be illegal and think that it's morally wrong. But when they find themselves confronted with an unintended pregnancy, you know, they decide that's the best decision for them to make at that point in their lives.

MARTIN: Rachel Jones is a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute. That's a nonprofit health research center. She was with us from our studios in New York. Rachel Jones, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. JONES: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

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