Note: This brief was updated on January 4, 2024, to correct the description of the data collected by the federal CDC Abortion Surveillance System.
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the constitutional right to abortion as well as the federal standards of abortion access, established by prior decisions in the cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Prior to the Dobbs ruling, the federal standard was that abortions were permitted up to fetal viability. That federal standard has been eliminated, allowing states to set policies regarding the legality of abortions and establish limits. Access to and availability of abortions varies widely between states, with some states banning almost all abortions and some states protecting abortion access.
This issue brief answers some critical questions about abortion in the United States and presents data collected before and new data that was published shortly after the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
- What is abortion?
- How safe are abortions?
- How often do abortions occur?
- Who gets abortions?
- At what point in pregnancy do abortions occur?
- Where do people get abortion care?
- How much do abortions cost?
- Does private insurance or Medicaid cover abortions?
- What are public opinions about abortion?
What is abortion?
Abortion is the medical termination of a pregnancy. It is a standard medical service that many women obtain at some point in their life. There are different types of abortion methods, which the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) places in four categories:
- Medication Abortion – Medication abortion, also known as medical abortion or abortion with pills, is a pregnancy termination protocol that involves taking oral medications. There are two widely accepted protocols for medication abortion. In the U.S., the most common protocol involves taking two different drugs, Mifepristone and Misoprostol. Typically, an individual using medication for abortion takes Mifepristone first, followed by misoprostol 24-48 hours later. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved this protocol of medication abortion for use up to the first 70 days (10 weeks) of pregnancy, and its use has been rising for years. Another medication abortion protocol uses misoprostol alone. Patients can take 800 µg (4 pills) of misoprostol sublingually or vaginally every three hours for a total of 12 pills. The regimen is also recommended for up to 70 days (10 weeks) of pregnancy, but the FDA does not currently approve it, and it is more commonly used in other countries.
Guttmacher Institute estimates that in 2020, medication was used for more than half (53%) of all abortions. While medication abortion has been available in the U.S. for more than 20 years, studies have found that many adults and women of reproductive age have not heard of medication abortion. Many have confused emergency contraception (EC) pills with medication abortion pills, but EC does not terminate a pregnancy. EC works by delaying or inhibiting ovulation and will not affect an established pregnancy.
- Aspiration, a minimally invasive and commonly used gynecological procedure, is the most common form of procedural abortion. It can be used to conduct abortions up to 14-16 weeks of gestation. Aspiration is also commonly used in cases of early pregnancy loss (miscarriage).
- Dilation and evacuation abortions (D&E) are usually performed after the 14th week of pregnancy. The cervix is dilated, and the pregnancy tissue is evacuated using forceps or suction.
- Induction abortions are rare and are conducted later in pregnancy. They involve the use of medications to induce labor and delivery of the fetus.
How safe are abortions?
Despite its strong safety profile, abortion is the most highly regulated medical service in the country and is now banned in several states. In addition to bans on abortion altogether and telehealth, many states impose other limitations on abortion that are not medically indicated, including waiting periods, ultrasound requirements, gestational age limits, and parental notification and consent requirements. These restrictions typically delay receipt of services.
- NASEM completed an exhaustive review on the safety and effectiveness of abortion care and concluded that complications from abortion are rare and occur far less frequently than during childbirth.
- NASEM also concluded that safety is enhanced when the abortion is performed earlier in the pregnancy. State-level restrictions such as waiting periods, ultrasound requirements, and gestational limits that impede access and delay abortion provisions likely make abortions less safe.
- When medication abortion pills, which account for the majority of abortions, are administered at 9 weeks gestation or less, the pregnancy is terminated successfully 99.6% of the time, with a 0.4% risk of significant complications and an associated mortality rate of less than 0.001 percent (0.00064%).
- Medication abortion pills can be provided in a clinical setting or via telehealth (without an in-person visit). Research has found that the provision of medication abortion via telehealth is as safe and effective as the provision of the pills at an in-person visit.
- Studies on procedural abortions, which include aspiration and D&E, have also found that they are very safe. Research on aspiration abortions, the most common procedural method, has found the rate of significant complications of less than 1%.
How often do abortions occur?
There are three major data sources on abortion incidence and the characteristics of people who obtain abortions in the U.S: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Guttmacher Institute, and most recently, the Society of Family Planning’s (SFP) #WeCount project.
The federal CDC Abortion Surveillance System requests data from the central health agencies of the 50 states, DC, and New York City to document the number and characteristics of women obtaining abortions. Most states collect data from facilities where abortions are provided on the demographic characteristics of patients, gestational age, and type of abortion procedure. Reporting these data to the CDC is voluntary and not all states participate in the surveillance system. Notably, California, Maryland, and New Hampshire have not reported data on abortions to the CDC system for years. CDC publishes available data from the surveillance system annually.
Guttmacher Institute, an independent research and advocacy organization, is another major source of data on abortions in the U.S. Prior to the Dobbs ruling, Guttmacher conducted the Abortion Provider Census (APC) periodically which has provided data on abortion incidence, abortion facilities, and characteristics of abortion patients. Data from this Census are based primarily on questionnaires collected from all known facilities that provide abortion in the country, information obtained from state health departments, and Guttmacher estimates for a small portion of facilities. The most recent APC reports data from 2020.
The CDC and Guttmacher data differ in terms of methods, timeframe, and completeness, but both have shown similar trends in abortion rates over the past decade. One notable difference is that Guttmacher’s study includes continuous reporting from California, D.C., Maryland, and New Hampshire, which explains at least in part the higher number of abortions in their data.
Since the Dobbs ruling, the Guttmacher Institute has established the Monthly Abortion Provision Study to track abortion volume within the formal United States health care system. This ongoing effort collects data on and provides national and state-level estimates on procedural and medication abortions while also tracking the changes in abortion volume since 2020. The Monthly Abortion Provision Study was designed to complement Guttmacher’s APC along with other data collection efforts to allow for quick snapshots of the changing abortion landscape in the United States.
Society of Family Planning’s (SFP) #WeCount is another national reporting effort that measures changes in abortion access following the Dobbs ruling. The project reports on the number of abortions per month by state and includes data on abortions provided through clinics, private practices, hospitals, and virtual-only providers. The report does not include data on self-managed abortions that are performed without clinical supervision. The most recent #WeCount report analyzes data from April 2022 to data from June 2023, marking one full year of abortion data since Dobbs. The effort represents 83% of all providers known to #WeCount who agreed to participate in their research.
This KFF issue brief uses data from the CDC, Guttmacher, and SFP as well as other research organizations.
How has the abortion rate changed over time?
For most of the decade prior to the Dobbs ruling, there was a steady decline in abortion rates nationally, but there was a slight increase in the years just before the ruling.
In their most recent national data, Guttmacher Institute reported 930,160 abortions in 2020 and a rate of 14.4 per 1,000 women. CDC reported 622,108 abortions in 2021 and a rate of 11.6 abortions per 1,000 women (excludes CA, DC, MD, NH). Guttmacher’s study showed an upward trend in abortion from 2017 to 2020 whereas CDC’s report showed an increase in abortions from 2017 to 2021 except for a slight decrease in 2020.
While most attribute the long-term decline in abortion rates to increased use of more effective methods of contraception, several states had reduced access to low- or no-cost contraceptive care as a result of reductions in the Title X network under the Trump Administration, which may have contributed to the slight rise in abortions prior to the Dobbs ruling. Other factors that may have contributed to the increase could include greater coverage under Medicaid that subsequently made abortions more affordable in some states and broader financial support from abortion funds to help individuals pay for the costs of abortion care.
Even prior to the Dobbs ruling, abortion rates varied widely between states
National averages can mask local and more granular differences. Lower state-level abortion rates do not reflect less need. Some of the variation has been due to the wide differences in state policies, with some states historically placing restrictions on abortion that make access and availability to nearly out of reach and, on the other side, some states enshrining protections in state Constitutions and legislation.
While the number of abortions in the U.S. dropped immediately following the Dobbs decision, new data show that the number of abortions increased overall one year following the ruling. However, the upswing obscures the declines in abortion care in states with bans.
States without abortion bans experienced an increase of abortions following the Dobbs ruling likely due to a combination of reasons: increased interstate travel for abortion access, expanded in-person and virtual/telehealth capacity to see patients, increased measures to protect and cover abortion care for residents and out-of-state patients, and potentially reduced abortion-related stigma as a result of community mobilization around abortion care.
However, the overall national increase in the number of abortions masks the absence and/or scarcity of abortion care in states with total abortion bans or severe restrictions. States with total bans experienced observed 94,930 fewer clinician-provided abortions a year following the ruling (data not shown). Note, this figure is an underestimate due several state policies that restricted abortion access during the pre-Dobbs period. These estimates do not include abortions that may have been performed through self-managed means.
Who gets abortions?
Most of the information about people who receive abortions comes from data prior to the Dobbs ruling. In 2021, women across a range of age groups, socioeconomic status, and racial and ethnic backgrounds obtained abortions, but the majority were obtained by women who were in their twenties, low-income, and women of color.
At what point in pregnancy do abortions occur?
The vast majority (94%) of abortions occur during the first trimester of pregnancy, according to data available from before the Dobbs decision.
Before the 2022 ruling in Dobbs, there was a federal constitutional right to abortion before the pregnancy is considered to be viable, that is, can survive outside of a pregnant person’s uterus. Viability is generally considered around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Most abortions, though, occur well before the point of fetal viability.
Where do people get abortion care?
Just over half of abortions were provided at clinics that specialize in abortion care in 2020. Others were provided at clinics that offer abortion care in addition to other family planning services.
Guttmacher Institute estimated that 96% of abortions were provided at clinics and just 4% were provided in doctors’ offices or hospitals in 2020. Most clinic-based abortions were provided at clinics that specialize in providing abortion care, but many were provided at clinics that offer a wide range of other sexual and reproductive health services like contraception and STI care. Most abortions are provided by physicians. However, in 19 states and D.C., Advanced Practice Clinicians (APCs) such as Nurse Practitioners and midwives may provide medication abortions. Conversely, 31 states prohibit clinicians other than physicians from providing abortion care.
Even prior to the ruling in Dobbs, access to abortion services was very uneven across the country though. The proliferation of restrictions in many states, particularly in the South, had greatly shrunk the availability of services in some areas. In the wake of overturning Roe v. Wade, these geographic disparities are likely to widen as more states ban abortion services altogether.
How much do abortions cost?
The median costs of abortion services exceed $500.
Obtaining an abortion can be costly. On average, the costs are higher for abortions in the second trimester than in the first trimester. State restrictions can also raise the costs, as people may have to travel if abortions are prohibited or not available in their area. Many people pay for abortion services out of pocket, but some people can obtain assistance from local abortion funds.
What are public opinions about abortion?
National polls have consistently found that a majority of the public did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned and that most people feel that abortion is a personal medical decision. The public also strongly opposes the criminalization of abortion both among people who get abortion and the clinicians who provide abortion services. Nearly three quarters of adults (74%) and 79% of reproductive age women say that obtaining an abortion should be a personal choice rather than regulated by law (data not shown). For example, two-thirds of the public are concerned that bans on abortion may lead to unnecessary health problems for people experiencing pregnancy complications.