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Updated July 2015  

What are the recent developments on the abortion issue?

Abortion continues to be an important issue for American voters. The partisan political divide on the abortion issue mirrors the sharp divide in public opinion on the subject. Most recently the Planned Parenthood organization has come under attack from many Republican politicians because of a video discussing the use of fetus tissue obtained from abortions for medical purposes.

How has the abortion debate developed?

Prior to the controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, all fifty states banned abortion, with some exceptions which varied by state: to save the life of the mother, in cases of rape or incest, or if the fetus was deformed. This legislative ban reflected the prevailing public attitude towards abortion. The Roe decision declared most existing state abortion laws unconstitutional based on a "right of privacy" which the court determined to be implied by the bill of rights. This decision ruled out any legislative interference in the first trimester of pregnancy and put limits on what restrictions could be passed on abortions in later stages of pregnancy.

The timing of the Roe decision coincided with an emerging national focus on women's civil rights. Many celebrated the decision but others, especially in the Roman Catholic Church and in theologically conservative Christian groups, opposed the change. "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" evolved as the most common self-chosen names of the two movements, one to outlaw most abortion and the other to eliminate most legislative restrictions on abortions.

Today, the controversy over abortion remains a focus of political debate. A majority of voters favor legalizing most abortions  (Click to see chart) although the number of "pro-life" supporters has increased in the past decade.    The concern of many "pro-choice" advocates is the possibility that the Roe decision could be overturned. Although the Supreme Court rarely completely reverses precedent, the Roe decision rests on a unique interpretation of the bill of rights and recent rulings have limited this interpretation.

On the other hand attitudes have changed since 1973 and a far greater number of Americans, especially women, no longer oppose abortion and it is likely that many states would not now ban the practice if the Roe decision were overturned. The majority of political efforts on behalf of abortion opponents have focused on banning public funding of abortions, on banning late term abortions, and banning the licensing and distribution of the "abortion pill". The degree to which publicly financed abortions are permitted varies significantly from state to state.  (Click to see map)  A substantial number of states require that a minor obtain parental consent prior to obtaining an abortion.

Is abortion legal worldwide?

There is no international consistency regarding the legality of abortion.    Abortion is generally permitted in most developed countries and prohibited (except to save the life of the mother) in most underdeveloped countries. The rules are also influenced by the role of religion; in most Muslim countries abortion is prohibited and it is also restricted in Catholic Latin America. In the countries where abortions are restricted, illegal abortions are common although their precise number is difficult to quantify. According to the best estimates, over 40% of all abortions annually are illegal. In countries such as Peru, Chile and Brazil, the overall abortion rate is higher than it is most countries where abortion is available on demand. The high rate in these countries bears some relationship to the fact that contraceptive practices are not as common as they are in the United States and Europe.    Illegal abortions are also becoming increasingly safer due to the use of two medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Misoprostol is widely available worldwide as an ulcer medication but is being used safely and effectively either alone or with mifepristone in what have become known as a "medical abortions".

How many abortions are performed each year in the United States?

The number of abortions in the United States under the most recent figures is 20 per 1000 women of childbearing age. The abortion rate has significantly dropped since the early '80s.  (Click to see chart)  According to current data,over 40% of U.S. young women aged 40 to 48 had experiened an abortion.

What are the characteristics of abortion recipients?

In comparsion with most women of childbearing age, abortion recipients tend to be young , poor ,  and unmarried.   According to a 1987 survey, abortion recipients indicated a variety of reasons for their decision.   The teenage abortion rate has dramatically declined since the 1980's.    This is due both to a decline in teen pregnancies and that more pregnant teens are choosing to give birth.

What is the controversy about "partial birth" abortions?

So-called "partial birth" abortions are procedures in which the person performing the abortion partially delivers vaginally a living unborn child before killing the unborn child and completing the delivery. Under most statutes, it has been unclear whether the term applies to many late term abortions or only those involving the "D&X" procedure where the fetus is in the breech condition and thus a live fetus is partially extracted from the mother's body before the abortion is finalized. When it is used type of procedure is typically performed after the 15th week of pregnancy. Because of the unclear definition accorded to the procedure, the Supreme Court invalidated a Nebraska statute which had prohibited such abortions.    Earlier a proposed federal statute which would have imposed this ban was vetoed by President Clinton, and the Senate did not have sufficient votes to override this veto.    Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion indicated that if the ban had applied only to the "D&X" procedure, and if there had been an exception to the ban to protect the life and health of the mother, a different conclusion might have been reached. New federal legislation has now passed the Senate and the House  which would again ban this procedure and this legislation has been signed by the President. The constitutionality of this legislation is questionable because it does not have a provision which would protect the health of the mother. A federal district court has already issued a ruling indicating that the statute is unconstitutional. In April 2007, the newly constituted Supreme Court upheld the the 2003 legislation, effectively overruling the prior decision involving the Nebraska legislation.

How do Democrats and Republicans stand on abortion issues?

Abortion has been a partisan issue. The vast majority of Democrats are pro-choice and this position is reflected in the 2012 Democratic platform document. The 2012 Republican platform contains a strong endorsement of the pro-life position and advocates legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendmentís protections apply to unborn children. Most Congressional votes on the abortion issue follow this partisan pattern.

Abortion Links

Wikipedia: Abortion Debate  

Open Directory Project: Abortion 

Allan Guttmacher Institute: Abortion  






(click to enlarge)

Public Opinion on Abortion

Percentage of Americans Who Consider Themselves "Pro-Life"

State Policies for Medicaid Abortions

State Rules on Parental Notification/Consent

World Laws on Abortion

World Abortion Rates

Abortion Rate 1973 - 2007

Percentage of Lifetime Incidence of Abortion for Various Age Groups

Age of Abortion Recipients

Poverty Status of Abortion Recipients

Marital Status of Abortion Recipients

Primary Reason for Abortion Decision

Teen Abortion Rate 1973-2006

Teen Pregnancy Outcomes, 1990 and 2006

Senate Vote to Override Veto on Partial Birth Abortion Bill

Senate Vote to Ban Partial Birth Abortions

House Vote to Ban Partial Birth Abortions