Why Women Choose to Have an Abortion

Woman looking at a pregnancy test.

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For some, it's an inconceivable act, but for others, abortion seems to be the only way out of an unplanned pregnancy and an impossible-to-negotiate future. Numbers show that nearly one in four U.S. women will choose to have an abortion before age 45. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a handful of studies over the years have indicated consistently similar answers from women who identify why they've chosen to have an abortion. The top three reasons these women cite for not being able to continue their pregnancies and give birth are:

  • Negative impact on the mother's life
  • Financial instability
  • Relationship problems/unwillingness to be a single mother

What is the rationale behind these reasons that would lead a woman to terminate a pregnancy? What are the challenges and situations women face that make giving birth and raising a newborn an impossible task? 

Negative Impact on the Mother's Life

Taken at face value, this reason may sound selfish. But a pregnancy that occurs in the wrong place at the wrong time can have a lifelong impact on a woman's ability to raise a family and earn a living.

Less than half of teens who become teen mothers before age 18 graduate from high school. College students who become pregnant and give birth are also much less likely to complete their education than their peers.

Employed single women who become pregnant face an interruption of their jobs and careers. This impacts their earning ability and may make them unable to raise a child on their own. For women who already have other children at home or are caring for aging relatives, the reduction in income resulting from pregnancy and subsequent birth may bring them below the poverty level and require them to seek public assistance.

Financial Instability

Whether she's a student in high school, paying her way through college, or a single woman earning just enough to live independently, many expectant mothers lack the resources to cover the staggeringly high costs associated with pregnancy, birth, and childrearing, especially if they do not have health insurance.

Saving for a baby is one thing, but an unplanned pregnancy places an enormous financial burden on a woman who cannot afford to care for an infant, let alone pay for the necessary OB/GYN visits that will ensure healthy fetal development. Lack of adequate medical care during pregnancy places the newborn at a higher risk for complications during birth and in early infancy.

The cost of average hospital birth is approximate $8,000 and prenatal care provided by a physician can cost between $1,500 and $3,000. For the nearly 50 million Americans who do not have insurance, this would mean an out-of-pocket expense of $10,000. That's if things go well and if it's a single, healthy birth. Problems from pre-eclampsia to premature birth can send costs spiraling. If those births are included in the average, a birth can cost well over $50,000. According to a 2013 study published by advocacy group Childbirth Connection and reported in "The Guardian," the U.S. is the most expensive place in the world to have a birth. 

That figure, coupled with the cost of raising a child from infancy through age 17 (estimated at over $200,000 per child), makes giving birth a terrifying proposition for someone who is still in school, or lacks a steady income, or simply does not have the financial resources to continue a pregnancy with adequate medical care and give birth to a healthy baby.

Fear of Being a Single Mother

The majority of women with unplanned pregnancies do not live with their partners or have committed relationships. These women realize that in all likelihood they will be raising their child as a single mother. Many are unwilling to take this big step due to the reasons described above: interruption of education or career, insufficient financial resources, or inability to care for an infant due to caregiving needs of other children or family members.

Even in situations involving women cohabitating with their partners, the outlook for unmarried women as single mothers in discouraging. Among women in their 20s living with their partners at the time of birth, one-third ended their relationships within two years.

Other Most Common Reasons for Abortion

Although these are not the primary reasons women choose abortion, the following statements reflect concerns that play a role in influencing women to terminate their pregnancies:

  • I don't want more children or I'm done with childrearing.
  • I'm not ready to become a mother or not ready for another child.
  • I don't want others to know about my pregnancy or that I'm having sex.
  • My husband/partner wants me to have an abortion.
  • There are problems with the health of the fetus.
  • There are problems with my own health.
  • My parents want me to have an abortion.

Combined with those reasons previously cited, these secondary concerns often convince women that abortion — albeit a difficult and painful choice — is the best decision for them at this time in their lives.

Reasons for Abortion, the Statistics

In a study released by the Guttmacher Institute in 2005, women were asked to provide reasons why they chose to have an abortion. Multiple responses were permissible. Of those who gave at least one reason:

  • 89 percent gave at least two
  • 72 percent gave at least three

Nearly three-quarters said they could not afford to have a baby.

Of those women who gave two or more answers, the most common response —inability to afford a baby — was most frequently followed by one of three other reasons:

  • pregnancy/birth/baby would interfere with school or employment.
  • reluctant to be a single mother or experiencing relationship problems.
  • done with childbearing or already have other children/dependents.

Women specified these reasons that led to their abortion decision (percentage total will not add up to 100, as multiple answers were permissible):

  • 74 percent felt "having a baby would dramatically change my life" (which includes interrupting education, interfering with job and career, and/or concern over other children or dependents).
  • 73 percent felt they "can't afford a baby now" (due to various reasons such as being unmarried, being a student, inability to afford childcare or basic needs of life, etc.).
  • 48 percent "don't want to be a single mother or [were] having relationship problem[s]."
  • 38 percent "have completed [their] childbearing."
  • 32 percent were "not ready for a(nother) child."
  • 25 percent "don't want people to know I had sex or got pregnant."
  • 22 percent "don't feel mature enough to raise a(nother) child."
  • 14 percent felt their "husband or partner wants me to have an abortion."
  • 13 percent said there were "possible problems affecting the health of the fetus."
  • 12 percent said there were "physical problems with my health."
  • 6 percent felt their "parents want me to have an abortion."
  • 1 percent said they were "a victim of rape."
  • <0.5 percent "became pregnant as a result of incest."

Sources

Finer, Lawrence B. "Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives.", Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, et al., Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 37(3):110–118, The Guttmacher Institute, 2005.

Glenza, Jessica. "Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?" The Guardian, January 16, 2018.

Jones, Rachel K. "Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion: United States, 2008–2014." Jenna Jerman, The Guttmacher Institute, October 19, 2017.

Wind, Rebecca. "Why Do Women Have Abortions?" The Guttmacher Institute, September 6, 2005.