Defying stereotypes on abortion


YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED to learn that the young woman seeking an abortion in the United States today is not somebody's careless teen-aged daughter.

She is a mom.

She is in her 20s, she's attended college, she earns a manageable living and she is either living with the father or in a long-term relationship with him.

And she already has a child.

This is the profile that emerges from the work of Brookings Institution economics scholar Melissa Kearney, who drew on abortion statistics collected by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

And it contradicts a lot of assumptions out there about the woman who seeks an abortion.

"Most women who are having abortions are already mothers, as opposed to women who don't want to be mothers," said Kearney, who has a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That was the biggest surprise to me.

"I also think it is surprising that a woman who has already given birth would find herself back in this position," she said.

While teens and minorities are most likely to terminate pregnancies, it is educated women in their 20s who are actually having most abortions.

And while abortion rates have been decreasing for all women -- and especially teens -- there have been only small declines in the rates for women in their 20s.

There were 1.3 million abortions in 2000, the most recent year for which detailed abortion data are available, Kearney reported. That is one abortion for every three births.

But less than 20 percent were to teenagers, while 70 percent were to women in their 20s and early 30s. Eighty percent of abortions were to unmarried women, but only 25 percent were to women living in poverty.

So the commonly accepted profile of a woman having an abortion is very far off the mark.

She is not a careless adolescent. She is almost as likely to be white (41 percent) as she is to be a member of a minority.

And she is not what used to be thought of -- before the end of welfare -- as a welfare mother: uneducated, unemployed, unattached and with a passel of kids.

What is most troubling in Kearney's report is that half of abortions are to women who have already had an abortion, and 60 percent of abortions are to women who already have one child.

Though they make the decision not to give birth to another child -- perhaps because they have gotten their lives on track with education, a job and a long-term relationship -- they don't take the necessary steps to prevent pregnancy.

Her analysis of the statistics makes Kearney suspect that these women view abortion as a responsible choice, given their circumstances.

"The idea that abortion is driven by carelessness or a careless approach to life is not necessarily true," said Kearney.

"It is not an abdication of personal responsibility. Many of these women believe that this is the responsible choice. They are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families."

What is not so clear is this: These women are not teenagers who might still be trying to figure out where babies come from.

These are women who have already had a child, an abortion or both. That's what Kearney finds frustrating.

"It is hard to understand why these women weren't more responsible in the sense of finding themselves here again," Kearney said.

If we want to reduce the aggregate number of abortions in this country -- and nobody argues with that goal -- then perhaps it isn't teens or minorities or women in poverty that we should be trying to reach.

Maybe it is the young mother next door.

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimore / reimer.

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