New Data on Why Women Have Abortions is Both Illuminating and Ambiguous


pregnancy-testThe reasons women have abortions are not simple and thus can be difficult to study and/or categorize. That’s one reason why the two most recent previous studies on abortion reasons, from the Guttmacher Institute, date from 2005 and 1988.

Now, though, the same team from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that brought us the “Turnaway” study, has used the same data set to lay out the reasons the nearly one thousand women in their study had abortions. While their data set included more women with advanced pregnancies and reasons did not always fit into clear categories, the results are revealing nonetheless.

The article, “Understanding why women seek abortions in the U.S.,” was published in the July 5, 2013, edition of BMC Women’s Health and can be freely accessed.

As noted above the authors, M. Antonia Biggs, Heather Gould, and Diana Greene Foster, all participated in the “Turnaway” study. They are part of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIR) project at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the notorious abortion research center from the west coast.

Biggs and her fellow researchers began the “Turnaway” study in 2008. They were specifically looking to contrast the consequences of those who received abortions versus those who were “denied” abortions. Women were “denied” either because available abortionists were not trained or facilities were not equipped to handle those women presenting at those particular gestations, or because state law, for some reason, prohibited abortions at a particular stage.

We discussed this study in a five-part series National Right to Life News Today ran back in January. (Part Five, with links to four previous articles, can be found here.)

The UCSF team took data from the same set of 956 women, 273 who received first trimester abortions, 452 who obtained abortions just under the gestational limits, and 231 who sought but did not receive abortions. They asked them two open ended questions: the first about why they sought an abortion, and, second, what their main was reason behind the request. (Two women out of the 956 in the study did not answer questions on the reasons for their abortions.)

The findings are both illuminating and ambiguous. Women rarely gave a single reason and often gave additional, maybe even different reasons when pressed as to their main reason. Researchers attempted to gather these into basic themes or categories, but some of these were harder to categorize than others.

For example, one 19 year old gave the following list: “I already have one baby, money wise, my relationship with the father of my first baby, relationship with my mom, school.” Another woman, 27 years old, said “My relationship is newer and we wanted to wait. I don’t have a job, I have some debt, I want to finish school and I honestly am not in the physical shape that would want to be to start out a pregnancy.”

These cover the gamut–financial, relationship, school, and, in the way that some count it, even maternal health.

Essentially, the study authors decided just to identify certain general themes and then count every time a woman gave a response in this category. The authors seem to have abandoned the effort to identify a woman’s primary reason for abortion, as that data is not listed anywhere. Thus the best one can do with this data is to simply see how often women offered a particular rationale.

Researchers found 40% of these women mentioning something financial, 36% in some way discussing the bad “timing” of the pregnancy, 31% raising a partner issue, 29% speaking of “other children,” 20% talking of the child somehow interfering with future opportunities.

Less than 20% mentioned something about not being emotionally or mentally prepared (19%), health related reasons (12%), wanting a better life than she could provide (12%), not being independent or mature enough (7%), influence of family or friends, and not wanting to have a baby or to place a baby up for adoption (4%). [1]

These do not add to 100%, of course, because women tended to give more than one reason. And some other important qualifications need to be made to give a proper analysis

Looking more carefully at the data

These responses reflect a women’s self-reported subjective assessment, not some independent analysis of her situation. As such, it is a good guide to her perceptions (or at least to her beliefs about what others will consider an acceptable justification). But they do not necessarily tell us the facts about her circumstances.

For example, though we know from demographic data reported by the authors that 45% of women participating in the survey were receiving public assistance and that a considerable portion (40%) were not able to indicate that they had “enough money in the past month to meet basic needs,” we do not know what these women’s precise income was or what mix of public and private resources were available in their communities.

Would they have arrived at the same conclusion if someone had sat down with them, looked at the sort of resources available to them, and given them the sort of budget planning advice and assistance that is available at many local pregnancy care centers?

Finances are an issue for many a young couple starting out, and it is common to wonder or even worry as to exactly how one can “afford” a baby. Some circumstances are admittedly more dire than others, but it is remarkable how that year after year, decade after decade, century after century, people, some with larger families, find ways to give birth to all their children and care for them.

How much these women were aware of or considered taking advantage of these resources is unknown [2]

Twelve percent is a higher figure than we are accustomed to seeing citing “health” reasons, but a few caveats are needed here as well. To start with, this study group includes more women with advanced pregnancies than would be found in a general sample of aborting women. This could mean a slightly higher likelihood of physical issues (though researchers specifically excluded any women seeking abortions for “fetal anomaly” from their sample and concluded, in contrast to some other previous studies, that gestational age was not a factor here). But a bigger issue, again, is that these are subjective reports of concerns about possible health problems with the mother or the unborn child, not medical determinations of any particular risk.

Data and interviews bear this out. Almost half of the 12% reported were attributed to concerns that the woman had about the impact of her own tobacco, alcohol, or drug use on the health of her child or on her ability to care for the child. One woman said, “because I had been doing drinking and the medication I’m on for bipolar is known to cause birth defects and we decided it’s akin to child abuse if you know you’re bringing your child into the world with a higher risk for things.” There is no indication that this mother or any of the other patients giving these answers had medical tests showing any problem with the child, or were told by a doctor that having a child posed any threat to the mother’s health.

Other issues like “timing” are amorphous and hard to analyze. About 34 points of the 36% raising this issue said they simply weren’t “ready,” that it wasn’t the “right time.” Discussions involving timing often bled into other more tangible issues related to finances, school, or work schedules. Sometimes this was simply expressed in terms of emotional stress. Two percent expressed concerns about being “too old.”

Women often mentioned concerns about already born children when talking about timing or finances and nearly one in three (29%) mentioned this concern about other children overall. Though the sample here in this study is somewhat different in composition, the percentage of women reporting already having or caring for at least one child (62%) is similar to national figures on abortion patients having previously given birth obtained by Guttmacher and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

How much would change if partners were supportive and encouraging and women felt they would have help raising another child (women said 8% of partners were “not supportive,” 6% of partners did not want baby, 3% were abusive). No indication, again, of whether women knew of or had access to other support in their wider communities.

Demographic correlations

One thing useful that the study does is to match reasons with demographics. Perhaps not surprisingly, younger women seeking abortion were more likely to report concerns about immaturity, a lack of independence, or the child interfering with future plans. Younger women also more frequently mentioned the influence of family or friends either in pressuring to have an abortion or as people from whom they trying to keep their pregnancies secret by aborting.

African American women were more likely to report problems with their partner but less likely to report being emotionally or mentally unprepared to raise a child at the time. Women who were separated, divorced, or widowed were more also likely to report partner issues.

Women who were employed were half as likely to report a health related reason, while those who had a history of depression or an anxiety diagnosis were more than three times more likely to mention health.

It is not clear why, but women with more than a high school education were more likely to express concerns about not being financially prepared and to want to abort because they said they desired a better life for the child than the mother felt she could provide.

Some women (4%) simply admitted they wanted abortions because they didn’t want a baby or didn’t want any children and/or wouldn’t consider adoption. More than two thirds (68%) of the women saying this had never born a child. A handful of women sought abortions because of legal issues they were going through (3 women) or because of fear of giving birth (2 women).

Some of what we learned

Though it is not brought out in any detailed analysis here, it is worth noting that despite what appears to be a general resolve to abort among women in the study, data on the same women in the turnaway study show that, even as little as one week later, more than a third of the women (35%) were no longer convinced that abortion was the outcome they wanted. How many more shared that view once the child was born is not addressed here or in that earlier paper.

Identifying one single approach that will address every woman’s concerns and change her mind is difficult, given the multiplicity of the reasons and rationales given by women for seeking abortion. Some will be benefited by being connected to better support systems, while others need practical economic assistance. Anything making men more responsible for the children they father will go a long way towards helping many of these women care for their children.

Yet abortion’s legality and the implied social sanction that comes with it is clearly a major part of the cultural machinery that forces these cruel choices on women, that lets men off the hook, that leaves women to care for households of children all alone, and that makes society less accommodating to the demands of motherhood. Collectively such factors may conspire to force many of these women to consider an option that goes totally against their nurturing natures and pit the needs of one or more of their children against another.

If we believe the survey, most of the women seeking to abort here did so, not because they were triumphantly exercising their “power to choose,” but because they felt like–given the circumstances–they had no other realistic choice. Abortion forces on them a cruel, violent, destructive option that does little to solve their basic social or economic problems, problems, which may, in part, themselves be a consequence of Roe’s forced cultural transformation.

Those women would find better options and more respect for their rights and responsibilities as women and mothers with abortion off the table.

[1] No mention is made or percentages given for abortions related to rape, incest, or any type of sexual assault. This could perhaps mean that occurrences were so few as to merit no specific mention or that these were excluded from the study for some reason not given.

[2] Although we do know those citing financial reasons included 0.6% who cited lack of insurance or inability to obtain government assistance as a factor in their decision to seek abortion, while, alternatively, another 0.4% sought abortions because they did not want to rely on government assistance.

Reprinted with permission from National Right to Life.


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  • choiceone

    If you get pregnant because your church told you not to use the most effective forms of contraception and you cannot afford the pregnancy and childbirth, let alone keeping the child, why is your church not offering to pay for all of your prenatal care, the childbirth in a hospital, and postpartum care for you for at least six weeks? It is the church that told you not to use effective contraception, not the state, which should be paying for all those medical bills and even your living during and immediately after the pregnancy because it is the party responsible for the pregnancy! If the Catholic church finally understood that, it would have to put up or shut up, and that honesty before God would be a very welcome change in the status quo.

    • Mary Kochan

      choiceone, now for a little lesson on the birds and the bees: Not having money does not make you get pregnant. Not using birth control does not make you get pregnant. Believing what the Church teaches does not make you get pregnant. You might want to look this up. It is called sexual reproduction. Try Wikipedia; I’m sure they have a very informative article about it.

      • choiceone

        Sexual intercourse has never directly made even one woman pregnant. The only thing sexual intercourse can cause is the deposit of sperm in the vagina, far from the oocytes that the sperm have to fertilize. What makes a woman pregnant is the implantation of a blastocyst in the woman’s bodily tissue. If that were caused by sexual intercourse, then every time a couple had sex, the woman would get pregnant. But even when zygotes form, anywhere from 50-75% of zygotes/morulae/blastocysts do not become firmly implanted in the woman’s endometrium, and quite a view implanted embryos fail in early development to stay implanted. If a zygote or blastocyst or even every early embryo were really a person, as the Catholic church claims, then God would be killing off perhaps 75% of the persons God made. I suspect you have a greater need for informative articles.

        • Rivka

          That last sentence sounded like it would be better that a woman commit suicide after rape, rather than staying alive and risking pregnancy. As if the women raped and then murdered were the lucky ones.

          • choiceone

            Suppose a rape victim discovers herself pregnant with an embryo which combines 50% of her chromosomes with 50% of the rapists and is forced against her will by other people to continue the pregnancy and give birth,

            The born child is, according to the Bible, a woman’s “fruit,” and we are told in the Gospels that we will be judged by our fruit. Would you want to be judged on the basis of the result of someone else’s sin or someone else’s use of force against you? I can’t think of anything more unjust.

            Not only fetal cells, but also isolated fetal chromosomes, including those of the rapist, will continue to leak across the placenta into her blood increasingly during the pregnancy and massively in childbirth. It has been proven that such chromosomes can stay in a woman’s blood for as long as two decades. They can make a woman’s body liable to hideous and sometime lethal diseases decades after the rape. So if you think that the rape stops when the guy pulls his body part out of the rape victim’s sex organs, you are ignorant. The rapist’s sperm weaponizes the oocyte, so that the zygote/blastocyst/embryo is a rapist’s tool for continued rape of the rape victim.

            Forced rape pregnancy is an international war crime.

            So yes, if I had to choose between pregnancy with a rape embryo and death, I would certainly choose the latter. Forced pregnancy is worse than crucifixion, at least partly because it is a gender-specific punishment for others’ sin, one which men are never subject to. Before God we are equal and it would be better to be subject to a form of scapegoating that is universal, death, than a gender-biased one.

            If you can’t understand that, then you don’t deserve equality and the right to be judged only by God.

          • Mary Kochan

            Since you inhabit a moral universe where the taking of innocent human life (otherwise known as murder) is blithely rationalized as long as it is done via a “gender-neutral protocol, I must assume that you support the carpet bombing of innocent civilian populations in wartime versus the engagement of combat troops of the two sides with one another. The bombing, you see, would have a much greater chance of evening the gender load of the conflict by killing many women and girls, whereas engagement of combat troops with one another results in disproportionate male casualties.

          • choiceone

            Say whatever you please. There is no evidence that an embryo is “a life,” innocent or otherwise.

            No blastocyst/embryo of any placental mammalian species has ever lived longer than double the maximum pre-implantation life span for the species except when implanted in an independently living member of that species – and doubling the pre-implantation life span itself is possible only with the most powerful scientifically developed supernutrient.

            To prove an embryo capable of living without being implanted in an independently living member of its species would require growing one in a petri dish from the blastocyst stage or detaching an already implanted embryo from that member and showing that it continued to live independently for longer than, say, 30 seconds.

            Without that, you cannot ever prove that an embryo is “a life,” since that expression implies an individual life separate from the life of that independently living member.of its species.

            An implanted human embryo, once implanted, is part of the woman’s body and its life is part of her life, just as her organs are part of her body and life, even if they are transplanted organs that have distinct DNA. The notion that a human embryo is already a human being, a member of the human species, or a person is fiction – that is like calling an incomplete first draft a complete published book.

          • Mary Kochan

            Every human being’s life began this way, including yours. You are rattling on in incoherent and unscientific nonsense. The fact that a life dies when detached from the environment that sustains it does not mean it is not a life; it means just the opposite. It would be just as stupid to claim that a fish is not alive because it dies when removed from water, or that an astronaut is not alive because he or she dies within seconds of being ejected from the spacecraft, or that none of us are alive because we could not sustain our lives if we were suddenly removed from earth and dropped on the moon. Someone who cut the astronaut’s umbilical cord would be guilty of murder.

          • choiceone

            I think our disagreement has to do with the fact that you and I define very differently what a human being is and what human life is. In science, there are several basic views of “when human life begins” – metabolic, genetic, embryological, neurological, and ecological – and more than one variation on some of these views. Moreover, in philosophy, there are various definitions of what it means to be human and to be a distinct human being.

            Your view is that a certain type of genetic entity with the DNA of Homo s. sapiens is a human being, and that it is alive and has its own separate life even if it can only survive by living inside and biologically attached to a self-sustaining live organism of the same genetic species which is also a human being.

            Now, I just do not agree that such an entity is what I call a human being: it is just a genetically human entity. To be organismically human. it would have to have an organismic body with specialized organs like those of the self-sustaining live organism. To be neurologically human, it would have to have a neurological system with a distinctively human neurology. To have a separate human organismic life, it would have to be biologically separated from instead of attached to that self-sustaining live organism and/or be able to take in nutrients and oxygen from the same environment that that self-sustaining live organism gets them from.

            I am one of those people who, in primary school science class, looked through a microscope at cell division and did not believe the cell had completely divided and there were two cell until the boundaries of the cells were either separated or merely tangential. I apply this principle everywhere for counting things. If you are inside and biologically attached to a much larger living entity and cannot continue living without that location and biological attachment, you are either part of that larger living entity or a biologically alien parasite.

            So for me, an embryo or fetus is not a human being any more than a leg or a liver or a transplanted kidney is a human being. And the scientific view in biology which fits that is not genetic, but ecological or ecobiological.

            Your comparisons of a fish out of water and an astronaut in space are ridiculous. Human beings breathe oxygen. When an embryo or fetus breathes its oxygen instead of taking it in our of some woman’s bloodstream, it will be a human being for me. I will even agree that it is a human being then if it is anencephalic, though I can’t imagine why any woman would be stupid enough to carry to term a pregnancy with an anencephalic fetus.

          • Mary Kochan

            Same old, same old. Once you take it upon yourself to define which living members of the human species are and are not “human beings”, then you can abrogate to yourself the power to destroy them. According to your definition, neither conjoined twins nor an 81/2 month old baby in the womb are human. I thank you, though for exposing to public view such a sick and sickening mentality. All of us on one occasion or other so denigrate the lives of one of our fellow humans, or of some group of them as to be guilty in God’s eyes of murder. Sometimes it is very useful to our souls to have a mirror put up to ourselves to really show how ugly such thoughts are. We all violate all the commands and need God’s grace.

            Only the light of His love penetrating your heart could make it possible for you to embrace yourself and your fellow human beings. Given human history, it is very unlikely there is a single person alive on this planet who does not have an ancestor conceived in rape, including you. Your assertion that that ancestor could have legitimately been deprived of life for the crime of his or her father, is an assertion that no one alive today should exist. God would show you how to love yourself, embrace the goodness of your own existence and extend that embrace to all others. God would teach you that He is the Author of life and that rather than a punishment, the life of the child conceived in rape is one of the ways He brings eternal good out of temporal evil. And that you and every person alive today is part of the good that God has brought and is bringing out of evil. Your embrace of the “dark side” — power instead of love — will leave you in the end cold and empty. Much in need of prayer you are.

          • Mary Kochan

            As the Holy Father says in Evangelii Gaudium: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual” (213).

          • noelfitz


            In CL I felt I was insulted and held up to ridicule and contempt, and thus I felt hurt. But on reflection for some time and listening to the advice from a regular contributor to CL I have realized that it is important for me to forgive those who may have attempted to insult me, as well as be forgiven for the upsets I may have caused.

            Thus in reading your most recent post I was encouraged to look at Evangelii Gaudium. I have not read it all, but what I have read is very profound. Our new pope gives us good insights into the joy of our Catholic religion, the avoidance of negative pessimism and the need to forgive perceived slights and move on.

            So, thanks Mary for bringing Evangelii Gaudium to my attention. There certainly is joy in the Good News we have.

          • choiceone

            I think it is you and the Catholic church who have taken it upon themselves to define which biological entities are members of Homo s. sapiens. Only the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature has the authority in science to say whether a biological entity is actually a “member” of any zoological species or is only “of” that species. While a cell or an organ or a limb of my body or yours is certainly of the human species, none is classed as a member of it. You can make your argument that a zygote or an embryo is a member of the species, but at the end of the day, you have no authority in science to make it so.

            Ordinary cases of conjoined twins involve two persons
            because there are two heads with the capacity to breathe and take in
            nutrients from sources common to all persons. Both thus contribute to
            the continued life of their shared organism. But those cases where
            there is one host twin and one parasitic twin? A parasitic twin that is
            wholly contained within, biologically attached to, and wholly
            biologically dependent on the body of the host twin is not a person and
            is, to my knowledge, not considered a “member” of the human species, but
            only “of” that species. And when such a parasitic twin is discovered,
            it is removed from the host twin as a health hazard and no one calls
            that killing.

            Furthermore, once you bring up God, you are bringing up religion, and not all religions consider zygotes or embryos in the same way. In particular, Judaism has never considered the unborn to be “nephesh adam,” the Hebrew equivalent of person. Indeed, because Jesus Christ was Jewish and not Catholic, and because he said “Not one jot or tittle of the law will fail,” in reference to Jewish law, he could not have agreed with the Catholic view, because the Torah and the oral Torah clarified that the unborn were not considered persons.

            If a woman chooses to give birth, the child given birth to comes from her choice, not from rape. At earlier times in history, it was common in many societies for girls or women who were raped to commit suicide because they could not even live with the fact of the rape, to say nothing of rape pregnancy. But each one is always free to make that choice, and for that reason, any woman can abort any pregnancy because any woman is capable of committing suicide. I don’t think an embryo from rape should deprive a woman of her own life, and I do think that a woman has the right to refuse to use her own life to grow such an embryo into a child, because she has the right to decide what to grow into a child and what not to.

            I do not think God is the author of all life. I think God is the author of all true life, and not lies. I do not think God brings eternal good out of temporal evil. I think God only brings eternal good and that the temporal and evil are nothing but illusions which ignorant people claim to be substantive. The true God doesn’t makes people. The true God makes Man in God’s image and likeness.

            And I don’t think you embrace God. I think you bow down before the materialistic images that ignorance has made. That, after all, is what the Catholic church teaches as a substitute for love.

          • Mary Kochan

            Ah, there is just nothing like the calm, cool, rational, confident, detached, pseudo-scientific demeanor of someone who enjoys holding power of life and death over other people.

    • goral

      Why not demand that the church also pay the dead-beat boyfriend/father whose only purpose here is self gratification?! Obama and his propagandists have taught you well.
      Where do you think the State gets the money to pay all the pro-death deadbeats? Wikipedia has the answers to this question as well.

      • choiceone

        The state gets money from taxes, and the Catholic church gets tax-exempt status as do other religious organizations. But that church should not be receiving money from the state, so why does Catholic Charities USA receive about 2.9 billion dollars from the US federal government? I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t want the Catholic church to receive even a penny of my tax money and I know many non-Catholics who feel the same way. The state doesn’t get money from the church: it’s the other way around.

  • goral

    A little logic and common sense is in order. If a woman is listening to the church regarding contraception then it follows that she would also listen to the church regarding abortion. In so many cases the church actually makes every effort and does help pregnant women who may be “choiceones” but do not want to compound the bad choice with a death choice.
    The Catholic Church is a good choice both logically and spiritually because She’s all about life, temporal and immortal.

  • Katharine

    I am curious how many of these women conceived while on birth control…

    Also, I received a lot of help from diocesan funded Catholic Community Services during my 4th pregnancy, doctors visits, delivery etc. Unfortunately they also tried pushing birth control and sterilization on me the whole time.