Select Page

Incidence of Induced Abortion in the United States
Raymond J. Adamek, Ph.D.

How many legal abortions are there in the USA now, and how many induced abortions (legal and illegal) took place prior to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which permitted abortion for virtually any reason throughout the nine months of pregnancy?

One thing is certain. The number of legal abortions has increased dramatically since legalization, as we see in Table 1.

Table 1. Impact of the Legalization of Abortion on the Number of Abortions in the USA, 1968-2003, by Number of States with Permissive Laws

Year  States   Legal Abortions  Year   Legal Abortions

1968     5             18,000          1988      1,590,800
1969     9             50,000          1989      1,567,000
1970    11           193,000          1990      1,609,000 (highest no.)
1971                  480,000          1991      1,556,500
1972  17             587,000          1992      1,528,900
1973  ALL           744,600           1993      1,495,000
1974                  898,600          1994      1,423,000
1975               1,034,200           1995      1,359,400
1976               1,179,300           1996      1,360,200
1977               1,316,700           1997      1,335,000
1978               1,409,600           1998      1,319,000
1979               1,497,700          1999       1,314,800
1980               1,553,900          2000       1,313,000
1981               1,577,300          2001       1,313,000 (estimate)
1982               1,573,900          2002       1,313,000      “
1983               1,575,000          2003       1,313,000      “
1984               1,577,200       
1985               1,588,600        Total 1973-2003:    43,370,300
1986               1,574,000    
1987               1,559,800        Total 1968-2003:    44,698,300

Sources: 1968 and 1969 figures estimated by the Population Council as reported in U.S. News and World Report, 5Feb1973, p. 36. Christopher Tietze estimates that there were approximately 8000 legal abortions per year in the USA prior to 1967 (see The Effects of Changes in State Abortion Laws, Washington, D.C., U.S. DHEW, 1971, p.4). Figures for 1970-72 are from Tietze et al, Abortion 1974-75, N.Y. Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1976, p.7; 1973-2000 data are from Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw, “Abortion Incidence and Services in the United States in 2000,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35:1 (Jan/Feb 2003) pp.6-15.

Thus, at a daily rate, the number of legal abortions has increased from 22 per day prior to 1967, to 4407 per day in 1990, and has since decreased to 3,597 per day.

But have not legal abortions simply replaced illegal abortion so that today we have about the same number of induced abortions that we had prior to Roe v. Wade? The answer is most definitely “No”.

The late C. Tietze (1975:78), an abortion statistics authority, agreed that “to the extent that unintended births are replaced by legal abortions, the total number of legal and illegal induced abortions increases subsequent to legalization.”

How great this increase is over the total legal and illegal abortions performed prior to 1968 is difficult to say, since no one can state exactly how many illegal abortions occurred before that. Earlier “guesstimates” placed the annual number of illegal abortions at from 200,000 to 1.2 million (U.S. DHEW, 1971). More recent estimates suggest this is much too high.

Tietze (1975) for example, suggested that the illegal abortion maternal death rate in developed countries is 40 per 100,000 cases. In 1966, the last year before the laws began to change, the National Center for Health Statistics reported a total of 189 maternal deaths due to abortions of all types: legal and illegal induced, and spontaneous. [By 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, it had decreased to 90.]

Even if we were to allow for underreporting of illegal abortion maternal deaths by assuming all of these maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions, the total number of illegal abortions in 1966, at a maximum, would have been 189/40 x 100,000 = 472,500.

Cates and Rochat (1976), utilizing a lower estimate of 30 maternal deaths per 100,000 illegal abortions, state that there were only about 130,000 illegal abortions in 1972, one year before Roe v. Wade, when legal abortion was available only in a few larger cities.

Two surveys asking women about their experience with abortion also indicate that the “1 million illegal abortions per year” estimate is much too high. Analyzing the combined results from these polls, Henshaw and Martire (1982) note: “Most of the abortions obtained by women under age 35 would have occurred after abortion was legalized nationally, while the majority of abortions obtained by women over 35 would have been illegal.”

Four percent of the older women
and 14% of the younger women reported having had abortions, an increase of 350% in abortions after legalization. Allowing for underreporting of illegal abortions, Henshaw and Martire (1982) estimate that 4 million women over age 35 and alive at that time had an illegal abortion. Hence, the “1 million illegal abortions per year” claim is much too high, since it would have produced the 4 million figure in just 4 to 6 years, allowing for repeat abortions, and would have resulted in a much higher total than 4 million women.

Finally, the most comprehensive study done suggests that the best estimate of the total number of abortions (legal + illegal) occurring in 1966, before any laws changed, is about 125,000 (McKnight 1992 – 124,342). Since permissive laws began to be passed in 1967, therefore, induced abortions have increased 10 to 12 fold. The idea that prior to Roe v. Wade thousands of women died each year from illegal abortions is a myth.

[Raymond J. Adamek is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent State University, where he has taught courses in family, statistics, and research methods; has produced eighteen publications in professional journals.]

Cates, W. Jr. and R.W. Rochat, 1976. “Illegal Abortion in the United States: 1974,” Family Planning Perspectives, 8:86-92.
Centers for Disease Control, “Abortion Surveillance – United States 1984-1985”, in MMWR (September 1989) Vol 38, No. SS-2, p. 43.
Henshaw S.K. and G. Martire, 1982. “Abortion and the Public Opinion Polls: Women Who Have Had Abortions,” Family Planning Perspectives, 14:60-62.
National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States 1966. Vol II, Mortality, Part A. Washington D.C. 1968, p. 1-40.
Tietze, C. 1975. “The Effect of Legalization of Abortion on Population Growth and Public Health,” Family Planning Perspectives, 7:123-127.
U.S. Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1971. The Effects of Changes in State Abortion Laws, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
C. McKnight, Life Without Roe, Washington, D.C.: Horatio R. Storer Foundation, 1992.



Please note that research on the effects of abortion has been conducted for several decades; yet, much information has been ignored by the media and by public and governmental  organizations that should be presenting objective information to the general public.

Scandinavian Journal of OBG, 1979 (complications in future pregnancies resulted in over 24% of women who had had abortions) 24% OF ALL WOMEN STUDIED and 48% of women who had abortion during first pregnancy showed complications in future pregnancies.

New England Journal of Medicine (women under 20 have a 150% greater risk of cervical damage from abortion than women over 30)

British Journal of Cancer, 1981  (140% greater risk of breast cancer following abortion)

American Journal of Public Health 1982 (risk of tubal pregnancy increases by 30% after abortion and by 160% after 2 or more abortions)

Canadian Jrl of Public Health 1982 (1 of 25 women under age 20 who have abortions experience immediate medical complications – severe bleeding, infection, perforation, etc.)