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Surveillance Summary Abortion Surveillance: Preliminary Analysis, 1979-1980 -- United States

Fifty states and the District of Columbia reported 1,251,921 legal abortions in 1979, an 8.1% increase over the number reported for 1978 (Table 1). In 1980, the total was 1,297,606, an increase of 3.6% over 1979. Over the 2-year period, the national abortion ratio* increased by 3.5%, from 347.3 per 1,000 live births in 1978 to 359.4/1,000 in 1980. Over 90% of this increase occurred between 1978 and 1979. Since 1978, the national abortion rate increased from 23 to 25 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44.

Women obtaining abortions in 1979 and 1980 tended to be young, white, and unmarried, and to have had no previous live births (Table 1). Approximately 30% were 19 years of age or younger; 35% were 20-24 years of age; and 35% were 25 years of age or older. Approximately 70% were white, and 75% were unmarried at the time of abortion. Fifty-eight percent of abortions were obtained by women who had had no live births, while approximately 3% were obtained by women who had had four or more live births.

Curettage accounted for 95.0% of abortion procedures (suction curettage, sharp curettage, and dilatation and evacuation) in 1979 and 95.5% in 1980. Slightly more than 3% were performed by intrauterine instillation, and hysterotomy and hysterectomy accounted for 0.1% of all procedures in 1979 or 1980. *National abortion ratio = (national total legal abortions divided by national total live births) X 1000

In both 1979 and 1980, more than half of all reported legal abortions were performed in the first 8 weeks of gestation, and more than 90% at less than 13 weeks' gestation. The reported percentage of women obtaining abortions in the 16- to 20-week interval declined between 1978 and 1979, but in 1980, this percentage increased to 3.9%. Only 0.9% of women obtained abortions at 21 weeks or later.

Over the 2-year period, 26 deaths associated with legal abortion were reported-- 18 in 1979 and eight in 1980. Fourteen deaths were reported following spontaneous abortions--eight in 1979 and six in 1980. No 1979 deaths were reported from illegally induced abortions; one was reported in 1980. One other abortion-related death in 1980 could not be classified. Reported by Pregnancy Epidemiology Br, Research and Statistical Br, Div of Reproductive Health, Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: This report presents a preliminary analysis; a more in-depth abortion surveillance report is forthcoming and will detail the characteristics of women obtaining abortions. Since regional areas reporting these characteristics have differed from year to year, temporal trends should not be analyzed from summary data. When analysis is limited to areas reporting for both 1979 and 1980, no major shifts in characteristics of women obtaining abortions are evident.

Since 1969, when CDC began collecting information on legal abortions, the reported number of women obtaining abortions has increased yearly; however, the annual percentage increase since 1976 has steadily declined, with the lowest percentage increase (3.6%) reported for 1980.

In general, state-based passive surveillance systems detect fewer cases than those estimated by direct surveys of abortion-providers. Therefore, the number of abortions reported to CDC was probably less than the actual number in 1979 and 1980. Underreporting of abortions may produce some biases in the CDC data. For example, abortions performed in physicians' offices are probably reported less completely than those in hospitals or other facilities (1).

The age distribution of women obtaining abortions has gradually shifted from women 19 years of age and younger to women 20-24 years old. This shift results largely from a similar demographic shift in age distribution for women younger than age 25 (2). However, the proportionate decline in abortions obtained by women of black and other races, which began in 1978, does not appear to reflect demographic changes in the ethnic distribution of women of childbearing ages.

In 1979 and 1980, the proportion of abortions obtained by unmarried women increased. Women who had had no live births accounted for an increasing proportion of abortions in both 1979 and 1980. Concomitantly, the percentage of abortions for women with one or more live births decreased, as compared with the percentages for previous years.

Curettage accounted for virtually all abortions performed at 12 weeks or earlier. In previous years, dilatation and evacuation had been the most common method of abortion at 13-15 weeks' gestation, and in 1980, dilatation and evacuation replaced saline instillation as the most common method of abortion during the 16- to 20-week interval.

The total number of deaths associated with the three types of abortions (legal, illegal, and spontaneous) has decreased steadily since 1972, reaching a low of 16 reported deaths in 1980. During this 9-year period, the number of illegal-abortion deaths decreased the most (97%), while the number of spontaneous-abortion deaths decreased 76%, and legal-abortion deaths decreased 67%.


  1. Henshaw SK, Forrest JD, Sullivan E, Tietze C. Abortion services in the United States, 1979 and 1980. Fam Plann Perspect 1982;14:5-8,10-5.

  2. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Current population reports (Series P-25:917). Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce, 1982.

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