New York In American pop culture, the face of abortion is often a frightened teenager, nervously choosing to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. The numbers tell a far more complex story in which financial stress can play a pivotal role.
Half of the roughly 1.2 million U.S. women who have abortions each year are 25 or older. Only about 17 percent are teens. About 60 percent have given birth to at least one child before getting an abortion.
A disproportionately high number are black or Hispanic. And regardless of race, high abortion rates are linked to hard times.
"It doesn't just happen to young people; it doesn't necessarily have to do with irresponsibility," said Miriam Inocencio, president of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. "Women face years and years of reproductive life after they've completed their families, and they're at risk of an unintended pregnancy that can create an economic strain."
Activists on both sides of the abortion debate will soon be marking the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which established a nationwide right to abortion.
In recent years, the number of abortions has fallen; the 1.2 million tallied for 2005 was down 8 percent from 2000, and the per-capita abortion rate was the lowest since 1974. But overall, since the Roe ruling on Jan. 22, 1973, there have been roughly 50 million abortions in the United States, and more than one-third of adult women are estimated to have had at least one.
Who are these women?
Much of the public debate focuses on teens, as evidenced by the constant wrangling over parental notification laws and movies like the current hit "Juno," in which the pregnant heroine heads to an abortion clinic, then decides to have the baby.
Black women's opinions vary
In fact, the women come from virtually every demographic sector. But year after year the statistics reveal that black women and economically struggling women - who have above-average rates of unintended pregnancies - are far more likely than others to have abortions. About 13 percent of American women are black, yet new figures from the Centers for Disease Control show they account for 35 percent of the abortions.
Black anti-abortion activists depict this phenomenon in dire terms - "genocide" and "holocaust," for example. But often the women getting the abortions say they act in the interests of children they already have.
"It wasn't a hard decision for me to make, because I knew where I wanted to go in my life - I've never regretted it," said Kimberly Mathias, 28, a black single mother from Missouri.
She had an abortion at 19, when she already raising a 2-year-old son.
"It wasn't hard to realize I didn't want another child at that time," Mathias said. "I was trying to take care of the one I had, and going to college and working at the same time."
She was able to graduate, now has an insurance job, and - still a single mother - has a 3-year-old son as well as her first-born, now 11.
By contrast, Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., calls herself a "reformed murderer" for undergoing two abortions when she was young.
Now an outspoken anti-abortion campaigner, King says the best way to reduce abortions among black women is to dissuade more of them from premarital sex.
"We give free sex education, free condoms, free birth control," she complained. "That's almost like permission to have free sex, and the higher the rate of sexual activity, the higher the rate of unintended pregnancy."
Dr. Vanessa Cullins, a black physician who is Planned Parenthood's national vice president for medical affairs, said the allegations of "black genocide" do not help women meet day-to-day challenges.
"These actions take attention away from medically proven ways to reduce unintended pregnancy - comprehensive sex education, affordable birth control, and open and honest conversations about relationships," she said.
Martha Girard says she's appalled by the notion that women should lose the right to choose.
A hospital ultrasound technician from Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and a mother of three, Girard had an abortion two years ago, at the age of 44, when she mistakenly thought she was too old to get pregnant.
Having been through three difficult pregnancies previously, and coping with a mentally disabled eldest son, she felt abortion was the prudent choice.
"I knew that this pregnancy would end up badly - I could feel it - and we've already got enough problems with the mentally ill son," Girard said.
The Journal of Family Issues published a report earlier this month asserting that women often choose abortion because of their wish to be good parents.
That means women who have no children want the conditions to be right when they do, and women who already are mothers want to care responsibly for their existing children, said the lead author, Rachel Jones, a researcher with the Guttmacher Institute.
"These women believed that it was more responsible to terminate a pregnancy than to have a child whose health and welfare could be in question," Jones said.
According to Guttmacher data, the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times higher than among women from middle-income and affluent households.
An increasing number of women avoid surgery by using the RU-486 abortion pill or other early medication - these now account for about 13 percent of all abortions.
Of all U.S. women getting abortions, about 54 percent are doing so for the first time, while one-fifth have had at least two previous abortions. Of those older than 20, the majority have attended college. Almost a third have been married at some point. About 60 percent have at least one child; one-third have two or more.
"I don't think most people understand that these are women who have families, who are making a very serious decision about their reproductive health," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "The stereotype is that the decision is made lightly. It is not."