NRL News

Demographic Data Adds Detail to CDC’s Abortion Drop

by | Dec 2, 2014


By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research

Editor’s note. On Monday Dr. O’Bannon gave NRL News Today readers an overview of the latest abortion surveillance report (2011) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The welcome news confirmed that there has been a substantial drop in the number, rate and ratio of abortions in the U.S. You can read that analysis here.

ny-2011-cdc-abortion-ststas-2014Unlike Guttmacher, the CDC does not directly survey abortion providers, thus its totals will always be substantially lower than Guttmacher’s. But its data is very helpful as well, as Dr. O’Bannon explains today. If one examines demographic data on method, gestation, race, marital status, previous abortions, etc., they tell us more about how and why these changes are happening – and where there may be more work to do.


Not surprisingly younger women, those 29 and younger, have most abortions. This group accounted for 71.7% of abortions reported by the CDC in its 2011 report. Almost exactly a third (32.9%) involved women between the ages of 20-24.

It may be surprising, though, to those who have not followed recent trends, that teens accounted for just 13.9% of all abortions. Thirty years ago, in 1980, teens represented 29.2% of the total.

In raw numbers, the drop is even more dramatic. The 29.2% share of the nearly 1.3 million abortions the CDC reported in 1980 represented some 378,900 abortions. Though some teen abortions from California, Maryland, and New Hampshire are missing from current totals, the 13.9% of the CDC’s 2011 total equals less than a hundred thousand (89,613)!

While changing public attitudes towards abortion, the outreach of pro-life pregnancy care centers, and legislation like waiting periods, ultrasound, and right to know laws have impacted abortion totals across the board, the influence of parental involvement laws on this particular group should never be minimized.

At the same time, women over 30 were responsible for 28.3% of abortions. Abortion rates among this group, unfortunately, have not shown the same kinds of massive drops seen in the younger groups and in some cases went up.

Thus while the abortion rate for women 30-34 did drop in the past ten years (2002-2011) by 7.9%, this was against drops of 33% or more for teens, or drops of at least 16% for women in their 20s for the same time period.

But abortion rates for women 35-39 went up 1.4%, and women over 40 experienced a 7.7% increase in their abortion rate.

Explanation? This could be part of a generational attitude difference, reflecting more pro-life attitudes among the younger population. Or it could be the result of increased pre-natal genetic testing, with couples aborting upon receiving a negative diagnosis.

Gestation and Method

An increasing percentage of abortions now occur at 8 weeks or less gestation. [1] While just over a third of abortions (36.1%) of abortions were performed at 8 weeks or less in 1973, nearly two thirds (64.5%) were performed at this stage in 2011.

Over a third (36.1%) are now performed at 6 weeks gestation or less. A large part of this is likely the vast increase in the use of chemical abortion methods.

The precise drugs involved are not specified in the CDC report; other sources indicate most involve the abortion pill RU-486 and prostaglandin misoprostol, though use of misoprostol alone is increasing. But there were 107,804 “medical” abortions at 8 weeks of less gestation representing 19.1% of abortions among the states listing this category on their forms in 2011.

Though there is some use of chemical abortifacients at later gestations, these abortion techniques were initially developed to be used early on in pregnancy. High use of these methods has obviously had an impact. To get some perspective, only 11,384 (1.7%) of these were in the CDC’s “medical” or “other” category in 2000, the first year RU-486 went on the market.

Most (79.4%) abortions still employed what the CDC calls “curettage,” a broad category which includes manual vacuum aspiration, suction aspiration, D&E (dilation and evacuation) and other surgical methods. About 71.9% of the abortions the CDC counted involved curettage employed at 13 weeks or less gestation, while another 8.6% used curettage for second or third trimester abortions.

Roughly one in 11 (8.7%) of abortions the CDC tracked were performed at 14 weeks gestation or more. The CDC does not identify which of these were third trimester, but about 1.4% (7,325) of those were performed at 21 weeks or more.

Race and Ethnicity

Different states track and report race and ethnicity differently; some do not appear to have reported such data at all. As a result it is difficult to pin these factors down precisely. The CDC has several different charts reporting this data with various numbers of states and definitions so that there are not any singly definitive percentages.

Analysis is also complicated by the fact that minority population is not evenly distributed in the U.S. Several states with large minority populations (e.g., California) are not included in CDC totals.

The CDC chart with data on ethnicity from the most states or “reporting areas” (30) found Hispanics with an abortion rate (abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in that category) of 16.1, a couple of points above the national average.

However their abortion ratio (the number of abortions for every 100 live births) is 201, below the national ratio of 219. This means that while there were slightly more abortions among this population than the national average, Hispanic pregnant women as group were more likely to give birth than abort.

A different CDC chart covering fewer states but looking at ethnicity over the past 10 years, shows a piece of encouraging news: abortion rates and ratios for Hispanics dropped more than those for non-Hispanic.

The CDC does not give a number here for 2011 for what percentage of the population African Americans represent. But in “Black or African American Populations” (, the CDC estimated that in 2012, African Americans made up 14.2% of the U.S. population. In 2011, African Americans accounted for between 36% and 38% of all abortions in America.

Abortion rates and ratios for African Americans did also go down over the last ten years (-16.8% and -17.6%, respectively), although they are still much higher than those reported for other groups.

Still, the black abortion rate remains more than three times what the white rate is (25.8 for blacks versus 7.8 for the whites in the chart covering the most states). Likewise the black abortion ratio–381 abortions for every 1000 live births for black Americans versus 126 abortions for every 1,000 live births for white Americans.

It is hugely encouraging that the numbers of abortions, the abortion rate and abortion ratio are declining across the board. Yet given the disproportionate number of abortions among African Americans and Hispanic, there clearly needs to be a larger pro-life outreach to minority communities.

Marital and Maternal Status

Overwhelmingly, most abortions (85.5%) continue to involve unmarried women. That percentage has always been above 70% since the earliest days of Roe, but has crept up and has been consistently above 80% since 1996.

A high number of abortions are repeat abortions. We learn that 46.4% of aborting women in states reporting this data in 2011 had at least one previous abortion. Most (25.5%) had only had one previous abortion, but 11.6% of women had had two abortions, while 9.3% reported having three or more.

Six in ten (60%) aborting women reported having had at least one previous live birth. About two in ten (19.6%) had given birth to at least two children, nearly one of seven (13.9%) had given birth to three or more.

Taken together with the drop in the number of teen abortions, this data serves as an indicator that we may need to invest the same level of effort to reach the young, single mom struggling to make ends meet as we did the high school teenager afraid to tell mom or dad she might be pregnant.

Lack of Safety

The abortion industry has assured us for years that abortion is safe and getting safer every year, but CDC numbers do not reflect that.

Despite huge drops in the number of abortions over the past twenty years, women are still dying from abortion in America. Ten women are known to have died in 2010 (CDC abortion mortality figures are always an extra year behind). This makes the eleventh year in a row that at least six women have died from abortions.

Whether these numbers reflect the women who died at the hands of licensed butchers like Gosnell or from yet another “safe” chemical abortion gone awry, the numbers do not say. However it should be noted that risk of death from abortion figures reported by the CDC for the past decade are actually higher than it was for the previous one.

The numbers show that we’ve made great progress, but also show that a lot of significant opportunities to save unborn babies and their mothers remain.

[1] Some states reporting to the CDC specified that this was based on a clinician’s estimate or calculated from a woman’s last menstrual period, others did not.