ATLANTA — More American women are having babies they didn’t want, a survey indicates, but federal researchers say they don’t know if that means attitudes about abortion are changing.
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U.S. women of childbearing age who were surveyed in 2002 revealed that 14 percent of their recent births were unwanted at the time of conception, federal researchers said Monday.
In a similar 1995 survey, only 9 percent were unwanted at the time of conception.
At least one anti-abortion group said the numbers reflect a national “pro-life shift,” while others who research reproductive health issues suggested it might mean less access to abortion.
The latest findings are consistent with the falling rate of abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit group that researches reproductive health issues.
In 1995, for every 100 births that ended in abortion or a birth, almost 26 ended in abortion. In 2002, 24 ended in abortion, according to Guttmacher data.
That information seems to be in synch with the federal data released Monday, said Lawrence Finer, Guttmacher’s associate director for domestic research.
“The two statistics together suggest — but don’t confirm — that a greater percentage of unintended pregnancies resulted in births rather than abortions,” Finer said.
The Guttmacher Institute is nearly finished with a study of that question, but Finer declined to discuss the results before they’ve been published.
Others feel the link is clear-cut.
“I don’t think there’s any mystery here,” said Susan Wills, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The new data underscores that more women are turning away from abortions, even when it’s a pregnancy they don’t initially want, said Wills, associate director for education in the Conference’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
“It shows a real pro-life shift,” she said.
More women may be carrying pregnancies to term because of increasing availability of ultrasounds and other information that show “it’s a baby from an early time,” Wills said.
Finer suggested the shift may reflect not only a diminishing demand for abortions, but also a decline in abortion providers, Finer said.
Abortion rate falling
The number of U.S. abortion providers fell steadily in the last decade, from 2,400 in 1992 to 1,800 in 2000. The reason is not clearly known, although increasing government restrictions of abortions have made it increasingly difficult to provide the procedure, Finer said.
The new data on unwanted pregnancies was released by the National Center for Health Statistics, which surveyed 7,643 U.S. women on that and many other family planning and reproductive health questions in 2002 and early 2003. The surveyed women were between the ages of 15 and 44.
Among the questions: “Right before you became pregnant, did you yourself want to have a baby at any time in the future?”
If they said no, the pregnancy was defined as “unwanted.” Pregnancies that occurred sooner than the woman wanted were instead classified as “mistimed,” said Anjani Chandra, lead author of the federal study.
Federal researchers don’t know if the survey reflects a societal shift in attitudes toward abortion, Chandra added. “People have all kinds of attitudes that don’t always reflect what they choose to do. We would never want to guess at people’s attitudes based on their behavior,” she said.
The proportion of unwanted births at time of conceptions was highest among girls under 18 — 25.4 percent. It was lowest among women 30 to 44 — 10.4 percent.
The proportion was higher for black women (26.2 percent) than for Hispanics (16.8 percent) and whites (10.7 percent).
Here are some other highlights from the new federal report:
- About 42 percent of women in 2002 said they never married, up from 38 percent in 1995.
- About 50 percent of women in 2002 said they had lived with a man in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, up from 41 percent of women in the 1995 survey.
- The overall rate of breastfeeding among recent births rose to 67 percent in 2002, up from 55 percent in 1995. The increase in black families was most pronounced, rising to 47 percent from 25 percent in the early 1990s.
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