NRL News

New Study Examines Reasons Women Have Abortions 92% of Women Cite “Social” or “Other” Reasons

by | Nov 4, 2011

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D.

Editor’s note. This first ran in 2005 and serves as a supplement to the discussion National Right to Life President and Pro-Life Perspective Host Carol Tobias undertakes in today’s PLP. (See Pro-Life Perspective: Abortion’s Physical Complications.”)

Why do women have abortions? For over 15 years, those asking that question have had to rely on a 1987 study that some were concerned might have become outdated in light of the declining number of abortions and shifting abortion demographics.

Now a new study from the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), Planned Parenthood’s special research affiliate, brings our understanding of women’s abortion decisions up to date. While showing that women’s basic reasons have largely remained the same, the study presents some compelling new data that those reaching out to abortion-prone women will want to consider.

A couple of conclusions are very apparent from this data. First, those who wish to use the so-called “hard cases” of rape, incest, life of the mother, and genetic disability to argue for the necessity of abortion on demand will continue to find it difficult to make that case based on the reasons women offer for their abortions. Ninety-two percent cited what might be termed “social” or “other” reasons, rather than medical reasons or sexual assault, as the primary basis for their abortions.

And those who cited medical reasons often appear to have been stating their own opinions (fear that drug or alcohol use may have harmed the baby, inability to handle morning sickness, etc.) rather than reporting any formal diagnosis by a doctor. Less than a percent each of women even mentioned rape or incest as a factor in their abortions at all.

The 2004 study, which appeared in the September 2005 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (formerly Family Planning Perspectives), surveyed 1,209 abortion patients at 11 large abortion centers across the country. The survey was then followed up with in-depth interviews with 38 women at four centers.1

Women in the first group filled out an eight-page survey identifying their reasons for coming to the clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office to have an abortion, and listed their demographic characteristics, such as age, race, income, marital status, etc. Women from the first group who agreed to sit for 30–60 minute recorded interviews discussing those decisions in more detail constituted the second group.

There were a number of responses women gave to the question as to what was “the most important reason” they had their abortions: they were “not ready for a(nother) child/timing is wrong,” cited by 25%; they “can’t afford a baby now,” cited by 23%; feelings that they had “completed my childbearing/have other people depending on me/children are grown,” cited by 19%; and “having relationship problems/don’t want to be a single mother” was cited by 8%.

An additional 7% identified not feeling “mature enough to raise a(nother) child/feel too young,” while 4% cited their view that the child “would interfere with education or career plans.”

Notably, only 4% cited a “physical problem with my health” as the main factor in their abortions, while 3% identified “possible problems affecting the health of the fetus” as the most important reason behind their decisions.

Less than 0.5% cited each of the following reasons as most significant: rape, a husband or partner’s desire that a woman have an abortion, parental wishes, or a desire to keep others from knowing the woman had sex or got pregnant. AGI listed the remaining 6% as “other.”

Authors of both the 1987 and 2004 studies took the long list of reasons that women cited and tried to assign them to general categories, though they did not necessarily combine these in the same way. As a consequence, reasons that were grouped together in one category in 1987 may have ended up in different categories in 2004.

To try and make comparisons possible, authors of the 2004 study went back and recalculated and re-reported the 1987 reasons as they would have been categorized in 2004. Consequently, numbers would not seem to match up for anyone looking at the original 1987 study and the numbers reported for 1987 in the new study, but this is not necessarily a mistake.

Economic reasons, a feeling of being unable to afford to have a baby, were cited by 23% as the most important reason in 2004 and 21% in 1987. Those citing childbearing concerns or concerns about other dependents as most important jumped from 8% to 19%, while those identifying relationship issues as primary declined (from 13% to 8%).

Women who cited immaturity as the most important reason also dropped from 11% in 1987 to 7% in 2004 as did educational and career interference (from 10% to 4%). “Other” reasons jumped from 1% to 6%. For the most part, the remaining primary reasons were close to what they were in the 1987 survey.

While we have concentrated on women’s most important reason for their abortions, most women in AGI’s survey cited more than one factor in their decisions. Among women citing at least two reasons, the claim of inability to afford the child repeatedly showed up.

High numbers of women also mentioned concerns for how the baby would change their lives (74%), in regards to education, employment, career (38%), or other family members (32%). Relationship issues–that a woman was unsure about her relationship, didn’t or couldn’t marry the father, etc.–totaled 48%. At least 38% mentioned that they had abortions, at least in part, because they had “completed my childbearing.”


1. Lawrence B. Finer, Lori F. Frowirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, and Ann M. Moore, “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37, no. 3 (September 2005): 110–18.

Categories: Abortion