Abortion, Illegitimacy, and the American Birth Rate

Science  13 Sep 1974:
Vol. 185, Issue 4155, pp. 909-915
DOI: 10.1126/science.185.4155.909


In sum, it appears that legal abortion depressed overall fertility, but particularly illegitimate fertility, by giving women an opportunity to terminate their pregnancies when other means of birth control either had not been used or had failed. If legalized abortion had not been available, an estimated additional 39,000 illegitimate babies and 28,000 legitimate babies would have been born in 1971 in the United States. While this makes up a small part of total births (3,500,000), the illegitimate births prevented represent almost onetenth of all out-of-wedlock children born in the country in that year. In addition to preventing these births the legalization of abortion appears to have reduced the incidence of pregnancy-related marriages and thereby may have helped to limit subsequent marital disruption. Finally, legal abortion prevented large numbers of illegal abortions from occurring. Our data indicate that well over half—most likely between two-thirds and three-fourths—of all legal abortions in the United States in 1971 were replacements for illegal abortions.

Further declines in illegitimate birth rates for the country as a whole will depend, in considerable part, on the extent to which legal abortion becomes more readily available and more widely used. Theoretically, greater use of efficient contraception could also cause illegitimate fertility to decline. But there are many reasons why women do not use efficient contraception even when they know about it and have access to the materials (25). Even though the use of abortion throughout the nation is now legalized by the Supreme Court decision, this does not necessarily mean that services will in fact be everywhere more readily available. Our interstate analysis suggests that should the liberalization of abortion laws be reversed, not only would there be an upturn in illegal abortions and pregnancy-related marriages, but also a marked rise in illegitimacy, particularly among women who do not have the means to obtain an illegal abortion.