ON THE 47TH ANNIVERSARY of Roe v. Wade (a ruling which didn’t begin abortions, but ended an era of women needlessly dying from them), and against the backdrop of anti-abortion measures being pushed through state legislatures across the country in record numbers— in the year 2020 — I am once again thinking about the time, just a few months ago, when my sister texted me this question:
“Without using google, what percentage of pregnancies would you estimate are terminated in the United States?”
As I stared at her text, blinking, it dawned on me that, despite how passionate I am about reproductive choice as a fundamental human right, I had absolutely no idea.
I thought about the fact that there are several states down to low single digit numbers of abortion providers. I thought states like Missouri, where there’s only ONE abortion provider left in the entire state (and the state recently had to back off a new cruel requirement of state sanctioned sexual assault in the form of compulsory, medically unnecessary vaginal exams on women prior to their unnecessary three day waiting period before terminating a pregnancy).
I thought about my own circle of friends and the sum total of first hand stories I’ve heard over the course of my life as a 48 year old woman. Not exactly scientific, but anecdotal stories should be at least a starting point, shouldn’t they?
(as an aside, anecdotal stories might be a better starting point if shame weren’t such a powerful societal disincentive around sharing personal details involving abortion)
The percentage undoubtedly had to be quite small, right?
I took a shot and texted her back.
“Less than 1%?”
My sister replied that several of her friends had guessed the same exact percentage.
“The actual number…”
She hit send after three dots to pause, I assume, for maximum dramatic effect. Or perhaps she was giving me time to re-evaluate my answer.
(and now I’m pausing to allow you, reader, to take a stab at your own number)
Her text finally pinged to my phone.
My jaw fell open. NINETEEN?
My first instinct was such a deep feeling of shock that I literally came back at her with a sharp text questioning her sources.
I consider myself to be fairly well educated on these issues — how could my perception be that wrong?
“Several sources,” she said, among them the well reputed Guttmacher Institute, an organization which is committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights.
My next thought was horror. But probably not the kind of horror you’d expect.
My horror was at the idea that if abortion were curtailed through severe restrictive legal action, that would mean a staggering spike in forced pregnancies.
The consequences would be enormous. A huge spike in population. Spikes in struggling single mothers and unwanted children. A huge spike in systemic poverty. Spikes in crime.
Not to mention, exponentially increasing our already overbearing human burden on the planet is exactly what we do NOT need in tackling the climate crisis, coming food and water shortages and resource driven conflicts.
If you consider yourself to be one who genuinely cares about LIFE, it seems fairly obvious that the consequences of a forced population surge at this moment would all be directly antithetical to your cause.
As I struggled to digest a stew of mixed emotions, what became most clear to me was that this number is critical to understand if we want to continue what has been a downward trend in the number of abortions in this country.
It’s worth noting here that we are already experiencing the lowest abortion rates since before 1973 when Roe v Wade federally guaranteed safe access to abortion.
If we can agree that a COMMON GOAL on both sides of the debate around choice is to REDUCE THE NUMBER OF ABORTIONS, there are two different strategies to accomplish this:
- Address the SYMPTOM with punitive anti-abortion measures via the legal system. This approach, as we know from history, does NOT eliminate abortions, it just makes them more dangerous. This approach does nothing to reduce unwanted pregnancies, while it simultaneously increases rates of poverty, crime, single motherhood as these unwanted pregnancies are forced to term. Additionally this approach increases the rate of maternal deaths for women who will continue to seek “back alley” illegal abortions which put their lives — and future fertility — at risk.
- Address the issue at its CAUSE by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. How? Reduction of unwanted pregnancy is addressed through: 1) proactive sex-education and reproductive choice counseling starting with teens in schools, and 2) increasing access, federally funding — and improving — contraception. This approach was staggeringly effective in Colorado recently with their long-acting reversible contraceptive IUD program — teen pregnancy was reduced by over 40%, the teen abortion rate was nearly HALVED, saving the public an estimated $69 million (see link below).
In the spirit of understanding, let’s look at some RAW DATA, shall we?
According to Guttmacher Institute numbers:
45% of all pregnancies are unintended. And about four in ten of these unintended pregnancies are terminated by abortion.
24% of women will terminate a pregnancy by the age of 45. That’s almost 1 out of every 4 women. You know these women.
59% of women obtaining abortions are already mothers.
90% of abortions take place in the first trimester. Please read that again.
Number of years the average woman spends using contraceptive measures in family planning: 30.
That’s THIRTY YEARS.
THIRTY YEARS of an expectation of PERFECT RESULTS from contraception in order to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. Thirty years of pumping hormones into women’s bodies with birth control options such as the pill, the implant, or the I.U.D. Or thirty years of perfect condom use (we all know how likely that is).
It’s worth repeating that NOT ONE of the contraceptive solutions available today is 100% effective.
In fact, it’s been a while since I took sex ed, but this blurb from Guttmacher’s site made me gasp a little so I’m going to share it here:
“Long-acting reversible contraceptives (the IUD and the implant) had the lowest failure rates of all methods (1%), while condoms and withdrawal carried the highest probabilities of failure (13% and 20%, respectively).”
It’s simple math: if you have sex, EVER, there is a measurable, very real probability of an unintended pregnancy.
In fact, the probability of one or even two unintended pregnancies during a woman’s 30 years of fertility is quite high.
And if these numbers tell me anything it’s this:
Until and unless we can find a perfect contraception, access to safe, legal abortion MUST remain a piece of our family planning puzzle.
We need to think rationally if the goal is the continued reduction of the abortion rate without resorting to government FORCED PREGNANCY.
Let’s also recognize the reality for a moment that a woman can have sex with 100 different men in a single year and still only carry ONE pregnancy to term. A man who has sex with 100 different women in that same year could theoretically produce ONE HUNDRED full term pregnancies.
So why aren’t we aggressively talking about vasectomy as the lowest side effect, simplest, most effective, 20 minute outpatient procedure —which is also 90% reversible upon demand (and semen can be safely frozen as a backup measure) — as perhaps the single best option to prevent unintended pregnancy?
Finally, I’d argue that it’s high time we address the shame that has been weaponized by the anti-choice movement around abortion.
Because here’s the thing:
Ultimately, women bear 100% of the physical and emotional burden, and often as well the bulk of the legal and financial burden when there’s an unintended pregnancy.
The very least we can do is empower women in the choices they make regarding their bodies, their fertility and their family planning.
If there is shame to go around, it belongs on anyone who would deny sex education, make access to contraception more difficult for women, and then force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
Because to my eye, that impulse is ignorant, cruel, inhumane and anything but pro-life.
A few links to sources and more information:
Induced Abortion in the United States
Nearly half (45%) of all pregnancies among U.S. women in 2011 were unintended, and about four in 10 of these were…
NAF has worked since 1977 to ensure that women, health care professionals, and policymakers have access to factual…
The CDC reports an abortion rate of 11.8 per 1,000 women. The CDC uses voluntary reporting from states, whereas the Guttmacher actively seeks out this information and thus the numbers are likely far closer to the actual numbers. Both sets of data DO show declining numbers of abortions over the past decade as access to birth control and education increases.