Despite all the headlines about the procedure, many Americans do not know basic facts about abortions or who gets them, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.
Take the quiz below — it has the same questions as the poll — and test your own knowledge. Then, read on to understand more about how the facts connect to the abortion debate.
The number of legal abortions has mostly declined over time
The question that the lowest number of survey-takers answered correctly relates to the decline in the number of legal abortions the United States over time. Just 19% correctly guessed this statement is true, while 28% said the statement was false, and 53% said they didn't know. One percent skipped the question. Ipsos conducted the poll of 1,005 adults on January 5-9.
There has been an overall decline in the absolute number of abortions over the last 30 years, according to numbers from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Numbers began to rise in 2017, according to Guttmacher, but are still much lower than in the years following Roe. On June 24, 2022, the Dobbs decision overturned the constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade.
Factors potentially driving this trend include increased access to contraception; a shift towards longer-acting forms of birth control, such as IUDs, and the decline in sexual activity over time.
Why does this matter? Opinions about why this is happening are used to argue for different abortion policies. For example, groups that oppose abortion rights, such as the March for Life, have argued the decline is the result of new laws that reduced access to the procedure.
However, the Guttmacher Institute found restrictions on access to abortion were not the main driver in the decline in the procedures. Between 2011 and 2017, some states which set new limits and states that did not had similar rates of decline. In 2020, the number of abortions rose somewhat but is still below 1980s rates.
Early abortions are most common
The statement that most abortions occur in the first three months of pregnancy garnered the most correct "true" responses of the four questions polled. More than half of people surveyed (56%) answered correctly.
Despite attention paid to abortions that occur later in a pregnancy, more than 80% of abortions occur at or before 9 weeks gestation and more than 93% at or before 13 weeks, according to 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The average person getting an abortion is in their 20s and has other children
Thirty-nine percent of people correctly answered 'False' when asked to evaluate the statement, "The majority of women getting abortions are teenagers." Another 12% said the statement was 'True,' and 48% said they didn't know. Another 1% skipped the question.
The majority of women getting abortions (57%) are in their 20s and around 61% are already parents, according to the CDC. The majority have low incomes.
Research into the reasons for the procedure finds that timing, finances, and the need to take care of other children are top concerns.
"It's being used to really control risk within a family," says Dr. Louise Perkins King, the director of reproductive bioethics at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics. King says parents are weighing their needs and the needs of the whole family when making this decision.
'Viability' is hard to define
More than two-thirds of Americans misjudged the likelihood of a fetus's "strong chance of survival outside the womb" if born at 20 weeks, according to the poll. Thirty-percent of people correctly rated this statement as 'False,' 23% incorrectly answered 'True,' and 45% chose 'Don't know.' One percent skipped the question.
While there have been advances in care for extremely preterm births, 94-95% of infants born before 23 weeks of gestation die within their first month, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The majority of those who survive have neurological and/or physical impairments.
Even so, political discussions of abortion bans starting at 20 or 21 weeks persist. Just last week, Minnesota State Representative Marion O'Neill (R-Wright) used the term "viability" to argue for an amendment to a bill codifying abortion rights in that state.
"We have rescued and saved young, in-utero children that were born early, as early as 22 weeks, maybe even 21" she said during a discussion in the Minnesota House of Representatives. "The age of viability has gotten earlier, and earlier, and earlier."
Many doctors say this framing is misleading. "The word viability is used in the political arena and defined in proposed legislation without regard to medical evidence or the facts of a particular case," reads the ACOG's abortion guidelines.
For starters, the measure of gestation itself is not precise. Because the exact date of conception is hard to pinpoint in most pregnancies, the count initially starts from the date of the person's last menstrual cycle. Later estimates of a pregnancy's duration, based on an ultrasound, have a margin of error. So the "age" of most pregnancies is an estimate.
As a result, doctors caring for an extremely premature birth must look at a number of other factors such as weight and fetal development when recommending a course of action, according to King. Each pregnancy is different.
"Legislation around this topic is absurd," she says. However, state laws on abortion have included inaccurate information about pregnancy, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning law and policy think tank.
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