Shifting demographics of abortion and the political fall-out

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An important new report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute analyzes trends in abortions from 1974 to 2004, a time frame that dramatically highlights generational shifts among American women. The key findings:

* The overall rate of abortions is at its lowest level today since 1974. It peaked in 1980, and the rate today has dropped almost one-third (from 29 per 1,000 women to 20 per 1,000 women) from the 1980 peak.

* BUT – the rates have fallen much less among non-white and low-income women. As a result, the net effect is that abortions are becoming more concentrated among women of color than among white women, and likewise for low-income, rather than middle- and upper-income women.

About 70 per cent of all pregnancies among African-American women are unintended, compared with 48 per cent of pregnancies across other racial groups.

The social reality for each group is reflected in the fact that 5 per cent of black women had an abortion in 2004, compared to 3 per cent of Hispanic women and 1 per cent of white women.

The remarkable drop in the overall rate is proof that something is working to prevent unwanted pregnancy, since the abortion rate is an artifact of the unwanted pregnancy rate. It’s frustrating that the fundies try to claim the credit for abstinence only programs – frustrating because many other studies show that those programs are generally failures.

My bigger concern is about what the political fall-out of these demographic changes will be for a woman’s right to have an abortion. Some of the groups litigating abortion rights in the 1970’s stressed that the lack of legal abortions had a disproportionate impact on poor women – there was a “poverty” amicus brief in Roe v Wade, built on an equal protection theory. But the face of the abortion issue was that of a white middle-class young woman, a face that – whatever its other problems – also signaled that this was a demand that cut across almost every segment of American society.

I worry that the AGI report data tell us that abortion is becoming more a minoritarian issue. If so, we are at a moment when social policy and law can move in one of two directions. Our society could move to change the life circumstances of the young women who now face unwanted pregnancy, and therefore seek abortion, at much greater rates than other American women, by providing real choices over their futures. Or, we could – silently, without acknowledgment – continue down the path of cutting them loose from whatever remains (not much, it seems in the moment) of the American vision of a decent middle-class life of work, family and aspiration.

Nan Hunter – cross-posted at hunter of justice

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