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Abortion has been legal in the USA and in almost all western European countries since the early 1970s, and in Belgium and Ireland since the early 1990s. Although abortion was legal in the Soviet Union for several years prior to its collapse, abortion politics have subsequently come to the fore in some Eastern European countries (e.g., Poland) as a result of government attempts at scaling-back abortion. Legal access to abortion continues to be highly restricted in Mexico and in several Central and South American countries. Abortion is most intensely debated in the USA, where legal and congressional initiatives to amend the US Supreme Court’s recognition (Roe v. Wade, 1973) of a woman’s legal right to an abortion continue unabated. Abortion activism is pursued by several religious and secular organizations, and abortion politics dominate presidential and congressional elections and debates over judicial appointments. Grassroots efforts to restrict abortion have met with some success; post-Roe Supreme Court decisions have imposed various restrictions, most notably the imposition of spousal and parental notification requirements. Currently, the issue of late-term abortion is intensely debated (though most abortions are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy).
Notwithstanding the intensity of pro-choice and pro-life activism, American public opinion on abortion has remained steadfastly consistent. Since 1975, approximately one-fifth of Americans agree that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, another one-fifth believe that abortion should be legal in all circumstances, and a broad majority (approx. 60 percent) are of the opinion that abortion should be legal but restricted. Americans are most likely to endorse abortion as an option in cases of rape, and when pregnancy poses a physical threat to the mother or fetus; fewer endorse economic need as a reason justifying abortion.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (http://www.alanguttmacher.org), abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures performed in the USA: 1.29 million abortions were performed in 2002, with almost half of all unintended pregnancies ending in abortion. The abortion rate has declined from its peak of 29 (per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) in the early 1980s, to 20 currently. There has been an especially noticeable decrease among 15- to 19-year-old girls (from 43.5 in the mid-to-late 1980s to 24.0 currently). By contrast, the overall abortion rate in England and Wales is considerably lower, at 17.0 (for women aged 15—44).
Many Americans argue that the number of abortions alone constitutes a social problem; others suggest that the aging and declining prevalence of abortion providers is a social problem in ferment. The majority of obstetricians who perform abortion are age 50 or over, and the proportion ofUS counties without abortion providers increased from 77 percent in the late 1970s to 86 percent in the late 1990s (Finer & Henshaw 2003: 6). A majority of women who face the dilemma of an unintended pregnancy report using contraception during the month they became pregnant (53 percent), though not always correctly (Finer et al. 2005). Other abortion-inducing circumstances include inadequate finances, relationship problems, concerns over readiness for motherhood, and psychological and physical health problems. Nonetheless, 60 percent ofthose who get an abortion are already mothers, and 12 percent have previously had an abortion. Across all age groups, the incidence of abortion is greater among women who are single, poor, and non-white (Hispanic, black, or other ethnic minority). Rural women are less likely to have access to abortion providers, and to use abortion in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.
Given the socio-demographic trends in abortion usage, pro-choice supporters argue that it is not abortion per se that is a social problem but the social and economic circumstances of many women’s lives. In particular, they argue that women’s lack of resources, including the absence of health insurance, the lack of access to and effective use of contraception, and the absence of school sexual education programs, contributes to unintended pregnancies. Abortion supporters also point out that restrictions on abortion (e.g., spousal and parental notification), do not recognize the high incidence of spousal and family violence and the well-grounded fears that many women and teenagers may have in disclosing their pregnancies.
- Finer, L. B. & Henshaw, S. K. (2003) Abortion incidence and services in the United States in 2000. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 35: 6-15.
- Finer, L. B., Frohwirth, L., Dauphinee, L., Singh, S., & Moore, A. (2005) Reasons US women have abortions: quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37: 110-18.