About 40 Percent of American Women Have Had Abortions: The Math Behind the Stat

In the comments left on this story about stigma and abortion, a few NEWSWEEK readers have questioned my claim that "about 40 percent of American women have had abortions" and requested my source. The 40 percent statistic came from the Ehrenreich piece that I cite. When I did the math, I found it to be accurate as well. Here was my process:

I started with this statistic from the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that studies reproductive health and supports abortion rights: "From 1973 through 2005, more than 45 million legal abortions occurred." According to the census, the United States population was 295,753,151 in 2005 (I used this, rather than its most recent estimate, to stay consistent with the Guttmacher figure, which counted abortions only through 2005). That population is 50.7 percent (150 million people) female. Subtract the 24.3 percent of the population that is under 18 and you're down to 113.6 million women. Forty-five million is 39.6 percent of that, or, as I wrote it, "about 40 percent."

This is, to be fair, a crude estimation. It does not factor in some teenage abortions, although it does get most of them, since both the pregnancy and abortion rates of 18- to 19-year-olds are much higher than those of 15- to 17-year-olds (see tables 2.2 and 2.3 of this Guttmacher report for the data). Nor does this estimate take into account how many of those 45 million abortions were among women having more than one, which could reduce the overall percentage. At the same time, women who had abortions pre-Roe are left out, as are those who had illegal abortions post-Roe (yes, that still happens). Working with the data that we do have on the prevalence of abortion, I think 40 percent is a pretty good, albeit imperfect, estimate.

If anything, I believe the debate among our readers really hits home one of the main points of my story: since we do not talk much about abortion, we generally underestimate just how prevalent it is.