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Unwanted Pregnancies

Abortion rates are down. Why? Family planning may be the key.

WebMD Feature

May 8, 2000 -- The year was 1986. It was before Planned Parenthood was the obvious first stop along the road to becoming sexually active, before high-school students were well versed in their contraceptive options -- at least in West Texas. College freshman Layla Carter, 18, (not her real name) started having sex during her first semester with a boy she'd met at a fraternity party. "We were both shy and inexperienced, and, even though it sounds crazy now, neither one of us brought up birth control," she recalls. "We only had sex about once a week, and he pulled out each time. I figured the chances of getting pregnant were pretty low." She figured wrong.

Three weeks after Layla was due for her period, the pregnancy test came back positive. "I was in a state of shock," she says. "I felt I had no choice but to have an abortion. I couldn't tell my parents, who would have made me have the baby, and the boy I was dating wasn't at all supportive."

With the help of a friend, Layla made an appointment at the only abortion clinic in town. "I look back on that experience and think, 'How could I have been so stupid to not use protection?' But then I try to remind myself that the culture back then was so different. AIDS was just beginning to be publicized, and safe sex wasn't a cool concept -- it was merely something embarrassing you hoped your parents wouldn't bring up at the dinner table."

Family Planning Up, Abortion Rates Down

Though teenagers still hope safe sex talk won't come up at the dinner table, times have changed since Layla came of age. A total of 1,184,758 legal induced abortions were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1997 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) -- a 3% drop from the previous year, according to a report released in January by the CDC. Twenty percent of the abortions were performed on women aged 19 and below; 32% on women between the ages of 20 and 24; and the majority, 48%, on women over the age of 25. In addition, the total number of abortions performed on women of all age groups in 1997 was the lowest since 1978, and the rate (number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age) and ratio (number of abortions per 1,000 live births) were the lowest since 1975.

One big reason for the drop in the number of abortions, say experts, is that family planning is up. "These findings are encouraging," says Susan Tew, deputy director of communications at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization. "It's not that fewer people are having sex. Instead, we are doing a better job of family planning in this country."

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