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WETZSTEIN: Tracking abortion trends

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

For the best overview of U.S. abortion since it was legalized, I would urge you to get a comprehensive report just released by the Guttmacher Institute.

Stanley K. Henshaw, Kathryn Kost and colleagues at the institute pored over 30 years of data collected from thousands of abortion providers, plus a wealth of federal data about women, birth, pregnancy and abortion.

Their resulting report, "Trends in the Characteristics of Women Obtaining Abortions, 1974 to 2004," is a unique and comprehensive portrait of where our nation is currently at - like it or not - on the abortion issue.

I would draw your attention to two of the biggest outcomes.

First, the number of abortions continues to shrink every year.

The peak year for U.S. abortions was in 1990, with 1.6 million abortions. This number has since declined; in 2004, it was down to 1.2 million , about the same as in 1976, three years after abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.

Put more personally, think of five women of child-bearing age. Back in 1990, there would have been at least four abortions among every group of five women. By 2004, this dropped to less than three abortions per group of five women.

A second observation is that while the vast majority of abortions (89 percent) still happen in the first trimester, thousands of abortions are still performed on women when they are in their second or third trimesters.

What's new among first-trimester abortions is that the number performed very, very early - at seven weeks gestation or less - has doubled.

This jump in early abortions (from 16 percent in 1994 to 28 percent in 2004) is probably due to "increased availability and use" of home pregnancy-detection kits and abortion drugs such as mifepristone, which can be administered as soon as pregnancy is detected, the Guttmacher report says.

At the other end of the spectrum, a minuscule portion (1.5 percent) of abortions were performed at 21 weeks or later, but in 2001, this amounted to 18,400 abortions.

Broken down by gestational weeks, this included 8,800 abortions performed between 21 and 22 weeks, 7,200 between 23 and 24 weeks, and 2,400 at 24 weeks or later.

These figures are based on limited data and are "subject to a degree of uncertainty," the Guttmacher report warns. But with late-term abortion and fetal viability perennial political, legal and cultural issues, these kinds of estimates are always meaningful.

Generally speaking, by the way, a fetus needs to be at least 28 weeks old to have a solid shot at viability. However, famous "preemies" have been born at 25 and 26 weeks, and Amillia Taylor of Miami, who is on track to celebrate her second birthday Oct. 24, was born at the incredible age of 21 weeks and six days.

As you notice, I don't take a position about abortion. I feel there are plenty of special-interest groups who will argue the issue for you, and I don't need to join anyone's club.

But I strongly believe that since so many people marched, lobbied and demanded legalized abortion - and so many oppose it with all their might - it is imperative we all stay fully informed on at least the basic trends.

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.