Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
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Get "In the Know": 20 Questions About Pregnancy, Contraception and Abortion

Learn the answers to 20 of our most frequently asked questions, and click the endnotes for complete reference information. You can find 68 more questions and answers using the subject headings to the right. In The Know is also available as a card deck—click here for order information


1. How many of the world’s women are in their childbearing years?

  • About 1.5 billion women worldwide, including more than 62 million women in the United States, are between the ages of 15 and 44. (1)

2. How many U.S. women become pregnant each year?

  • More than six million women become pregnant annually. Slightly fewer than two-thirds of these pregnancies result in live births and 20% result in abortions; the remainder end in miscarriage. (3)

3. What proportion of pregnancies are unplanned?

  • In the United States, about half of all pregnancies are unintended, and 42% of unintended pregnancies are terminated by abortion.(3) Worldwide, almost two in five women who become pregnant have either an abortion or an unplanned birth. (2)

4. How high are teenage pregnancy rates in the United States?

  • Teenage pregnancy, birth and abortion rates in the United States have been declining for a decade: In 1982, there were 107 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenagers aged 15–19; the rate dropped to 75 pregnancies per 1,000 teenagers in 2002. (6) Nevertheless, the United States continues to have a substantially higher teenage pregnancy rate than most other developed countries—for example, the U.S. rate is nearly twice that of Australia or Canada and more than four times that of France. (7)

5. Why has the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States declined?

  • Between 1995 and 2002, most (86%) of the decline in teenage pregnancy was due to improved contraceptive use. The remaining 14% was due to teens delaying sex. (8)

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Prevention and Contraception

Contraceptive Use in the United States

6. Do most women in the United States use contraceptives?

  • Almost nine in 10 women who are at risk of unintended pregnancy (women who are sexually active, able to become pregnant, and neither pregnant nor trying to become pregnant) are using a contraceptive method. (10)

7. How well do contraceptives work?

  • Women using contraceptives experience the following failure rates:
% women who will become pregnant in their first year of use
Method Perfect use (11) Typical use (11,12)
Pill (combined) 0.3 8.0
Tubal sterilization 0.5 0.5
Male condom 2.0 15.0
Vasectomy 0.1 0.15
Three-month injectable 0.3 3.0
Withdrawal 4.0 27.0
IUD Copper-T 0.6 0.8
IUD Mirena 0.1 0.1
Periodic abstinence
  Calendar 9.0 25.0
  Ovulation method 3.0 25.0
  Symptothermal 2.0 25.0
  Post-ovulation 1.0 25.0
One-month injectable 0.05 3.0
Implant 0.05 0.05
Patch 0.3 8.0
Diaphragm 6.0 16.0
  Women who have had a child 20.0 32.0
  Women who have never had a child 9.0 16.0
Cervical cap
  Women who have had a child 26.0 32.0
  Women who have never had a child 9.0 16.0
Female condom 5.0 21.0
Spermicide 18.0 29.0
No method 85.0 85.0

Public Funding for Contraception

8. How do poor women afford contraceptives?

  • More than one-third of U.S. women are eligible for publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies because their income is below 250% of the federal poverty level. Publicly funded family planning services help women to prevent an estimated 1.3 million unplanned pregnancies and 630,000 abortions each year. (15)

Emergency Contraception (EC)

9. Is the “morning-after pill” the same as the “abortion pill?”

  • No. The “morning-after pill,” more accurately called emergency contraception, is not the “abortion pill,” also called mifepristone, Mifeprex or RU-486. When taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy, but it has no effect on an established pregnancy. (21,22)

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Abortion Incidence

10. How many women around the world have abortions each year?

  • Each year, women have an estimated 46 million abortions worldwide. Of these, 20 million are clandestine abortions and are generally unsafe. More than three-quarters of all abortions occur in developing countries. (2)

11. Is abortion becoming less common in the United States?

  • Yes. After increasing between 1973 and 1980, the abortion rate has been declining overall and for most subgroups. However, it increased in 2000 among poor and low-income women (those living at less than twice the poverty level, or less than $28,300 for a family of three) and women on Medicaid. (26)

12. What proportion of U.S. women will have an abortion in their lifetime?

  • On the basis of current abortion rates, one in three American women will have had an abortion by age w8. (28)

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Characteristics of Women Having Abortions

13. Do women who have an abortion want children?

  • Six in 10 U.S. women having abortions are already mothers. More than half intend to have (more) children in the future. (26)

14. Do women with religious affiliations have abortions?

  • Nearly eight in 10 U.S. women obtaining an abortion report a religious affiliation (43% are Protestant, 27% Catholic and 8% another religion). Among all women aged 15–44, 51% are Protestant, 28% are Catholic and 5% belong to other religions. (26)

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Timing of Abortion

15. When in pregnancy do most women have abortions?

  • In the United States, nearly nine in 10 abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and 56% occur in the first eight weeks. (30)

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Abortion Providers

16. How hard is it for U.S. women to reach an abortion provider?

  • Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider; a third of women aged 15–44 live in those counties. Nearly one in four women obtaining an abortion travel more than 50 miles to reach a provider, and 8% travel more than 100 miles. (31) It is not known how many women are unable to obtain an abortion because of distance from a provider.

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Cost of Abortion

17. Does the U.S. government help poor women who need abortions pay for them?

  • Congress has barred the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortions, except when the woman’s life would be endangered by a full-term pregnancy, or in cases of rape or incest. As of November 2006, 17 states used their own funds to subsidize abortion for poor women. (38) In actuality, however, about half of these states provide little to no funds to cover these services. (39)

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Safety of Abortion

18. How safe is abortion?

  • The risk of abortion complications is minimal when the procedure is performed by a trained professional in a hygienic setting: Fewer than 1% of all U.S. abortion patients experience a major complication. The risk of death associated with abortion in the United States is less than 0.6 per 100,000 procedures, which is less than one-tenth as large as the risk associated with childbirth. (40) However, 68,000 women in countries where abortion is illegal die each year of abortion complications, and many times this number are injured by unsafe procedures. (5)

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Legal Restrictions on Abortion

19. Does making abortion illegal stop it from occurring?

  • No. Abortion rates are much less related to legal status than they are to levels of unintended pregnancy. In many countries in which abortion is illegal but unintended pregnancy is widespread—for example, Chile, Peru, Nigeria and the Philippines—the abortion rate is higher than in the United States. Some of the world’s lowest abortion rates are in Western European countries, where abortion is legal and covered by national health insurance systems, but where levels of unintended pregnancy are very low. (43,44)

20. How is abortion legally restricted in the United States?

  • States can restrict abortion or prohibit it entirely after viability—except when necessary to protect the woman’s life or health—and the vast majority of states have done so. The most common restrictions on early abortion are parental involvement requirements, state-directed counseling and waiting periods, and limitations on public funding. (46–49)

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This resource was produced with support from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and the Roth Family Foundation.