It has been almost 49 years since the Supreme Court issued its verdict Roe v. calf on January 22, 1973. And much has changed in the half-century since abortion became a constitutional right. Clinics have closed, restrictions have become mounted and abortion one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. At the same time, women receive significantly fewer abortions than they were in the past.
But something else has also changed: the women who want an abortion.
According to our analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for abortion rights, the profile of women who have abortions has changed significantly since 1973. Some of these changes reflect broader changes in the country’s population, but others contradict long-held stereotypes about abortion.
For example, in the years after Roe v. Wade jumped – but then she started to sink.
One obvious explanation for this trend is state-level abortion restrictions started ramping up in the 1990s and rose to fever after Republicans swept state legislatures in 2010 and began passing a barrage of anti-abortion legislation. That’s what researchers who study abortion say Increasing access to contraception – particularly long-acting contraceptives such as IUDs – almost certainly also contribute by reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies.
Yet, despite fewer and fewer women opting for abortion, hundreds of thousands of pregnancies are terminated every year. And as the number of abortions has shrunk, the demographic of women who get abortions has become less vulnerable in some ways—but much more vulnerable in others.
One of the most striking post-Roe changes was the dramatic decrease in the proportion of abortion patients who are teenagers. This is a trend that also doesn’t have much to do with abortion restrictions. It’s mainly that fewer teenagers become pregnant primarily as the number of women having abortions is now aging.
The dramatic decline in teenage abortions is not an isolated incident – Teenage pregnancies and births have declined sharply in recent decades. Both trends have a similar explanation, although. “It appears to be related to improved contraceptive use among adolescents,” said Rachel Jones, a researcher at the Guttmacher Institute. And it probably also has something to do with the fact that teenagers are fair have less sex as previously.
Although abortions are now more geared towards older patients, the women who choose to have an abortion increasingly have lower incomes. The CDC doesn’t collect data on the income of abortion patients, so our ability to track this trend is more limited, but two decades of Guttmacher Institute surveys show a significant increase in the proportion of poor abortion patients.
Part of this trend is probably due to this growing economic inequality in the US; There are more low-income women now, so it makes sense that they should take a larger share. But there are many other reasons poorer women would be more likely to seek abortions. Although the Affordable Care Act has made birth control more affordable, it’s still not that accessible to poor women. Not accidentally poorer women are also more likely experience unwanted pregnancies. Moreover, poverty itself is also a reason why many women terminate pregnancy; many abortion patients say that they terminate their pregnancy simply because they cannot afford another child.
This is one of the reasons why abortion restrictions on women are so difficult to manage. Government hurdles are not only inconvenient but also costly. abortion is hardly any insurance, due to a web of state and federal restrictions. Because of this, women who may have already had difficulty affording an abortion may also have to lose work hours or travel longer distances in parts of the country where abortion clinics are few and/or where multiple visits are required.
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Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College who studies reproductive policy, said the fact that it’s often poorer women who have abortions contributes to a lack of awareness of how difficult it is currently to get an abortion in the US. “As [abortion] focuses on this group of poor and low-income women, the rest of us may be further away from that,” she said. As a result, she added, it may be harder for most Americans to empathize with how difficult it is for many women to get an abortion.
Given that lower-income women are too disproportionately likely black women, the racial composition of women who obtain abortions has also changed significantly. When abortion became legal nationwide in 1973, most women who received abortions were white. In the meantime, this proportion has decreased significantly.
One explanation for this trend is simple: since the 1970s the US as a whole has received much more diverse. But it also reflects the broader injustices that people of color face in all sorts of areas, including health care. The mean wealth of white households is also much higher than the median wealth of Black and Hispanic households and Black and Hispanic youth are less likely to receive comprehensive sex education or have access to highly effective birth control. Additionally, women of color are generally more willing to do so have unwanted pregnancies.
Other sweeping changes in American society have affected who performs abortions. Most women who have an abortion are unmarried, and this has been the case since abortion was legalized. But according to the CDC, the percentage of married women getting abortions has fallen by almost half.
That makes sense considering they are Americans much less likely to marry than 50 years ago. But it means that married women are underrepresented among abortion patients and unmarried women are overrepresented.
However, being unmarried can mean a lot of things. Guttmachers 2014 Survey of Abortion Patients helps fill in the picture a little more. About 31 percent of the abortion patients in this survey were living with a partner; Just over half were not living with a partner when they became pregnant. So while unmarried women are increasingly likely to have abortions, the shift isn’t as dramatic as it seems.
Political discussion of abortion in the US often focuses on abortions later in pregnancy, but over time most abortions took place earlier and earlier in pregnancy. Myers told us there are two reasons for this. “First, women have better access to Highly sensitive home pregnancy tests making it easier for women to discover they’re pregnant sooner,” she said.
The second reason is the Introduction of medicated abortion pills, which can be taken during most of the first trimester. “It makes abortion more accessible and also gives women an incentive to have it sooner,” Myers said.
In 2019, about four in 10 abortions occurred at six weeks gestation or earlier, according to the CDC, and more than 90 percent of abortions occurred in the first trimester.
Meanwhile, second-trimester abortions — which were never very common — are becoming even rarer. In 1973, about 15 percent of abortions occurred at 12 weeks, but the proportion that occurred at 13 weeks was just 7 percent in 2019. However, one thing has remained constant over time – despite the recording an enormous amount of political oxygen — is that abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy have always been extremely rare.
The fact that many abortions take place in the first few weeks of pregnancy explains why very restrictive abortion laws, such as a ban on abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, which went into effect in Texas in September, didn’t stop completely women before abortion. However, most abortions today still take place after six weeks, as some women do not even know they are pregnant at this point. And just because earlier abortions are still possible doesn’t make it easy. This is one of the reasons Texas law places a heavy burden on women, especially when they are struggling to raise money for the procedure or to travel to a clinic.
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