April 19, 2007 in Nation/World

Prevalence of procedure disputed

David Brown Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The abortion procedure whose ban was upheld Wednesday by the Supreme Court accounts for only a few thousand of the roughly 1.3 million procedures done each year in the United States, according the best available estimates.

Data on abortions – and in particular the types of procedures physicians use – are among the more incomplete and contested health statistics in the United States. The prevalence of the so-called “partial birth” technique is made murkier by arguments over how to define it.

In the government’s most recent estimate of abortion rates, the states of California, New Hampshire and West Virginia reported no data, resulting in significant undercount.

The best estimate appears to be by the nonprofit Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which researches reproductive health issues. In 2000, the last time it studied the question, the Institute estimated there were 1.31 million abortions in the United States. Of that total, about 2,200, or 0.17 percent, were by “intact dilation and extraction,” which is roughly synonymous with “partial birth abortion.”

That report estimated that about 30 of the nation’s 1,800 abortion providers used the controversial technique.

When the issue – and terminology – entered public discussion in the mid-1990s, an official at the National Coalition of Abortion Providers estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 of the procedures were done annually. One of the chief proponents of the law banning the procedure does not disagree with that guess.

“There are at least several thousand a year,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. “But nobody really knows how much of the iceberg is visible.”

Although many people believe the technique is done only at very advanced gestational age, “most D&X (dilation and extraction) procedures in 2000 were second-trimester, not third-trimester, abortions,” said Lawrence Finer, a demographer at the Guttmacher Institute, in an interview Wednesday.

Overall, 88 percent of abortions are done before the end of the 12th week – the first trimester. About 10 percent are done from weeks 13 through 20. About 1 percent are done at week 21 or later. Birth usually takes place after 38 weeks, roughly 40 weeks after the last menstrual period.

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