Here’s what data shows on who, where, when and why women get abortions in Utah

Andy Larsen: Some results surprised me — and might just surprise you.

(Rachel Rydalch | Special to The Tribune) People march down State Street for an abortion-rights rally in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 26, 2022. The state keeps many abortion stats that shed light on the issue.

If you do an internet search for information about abortion stats in Utah, you’re likely to find an article by our women’s issues reporter, Becky Jacobs, at or near the top of the list.

That’s because she’s been covering the topic for years for The Salt Lake Tribune, meaning she’s incredibly on the ball when it comes to breaking news like the Supreme Court’s decision last week, nullifying the result of Roe v. Wade from nearly 50 years ago.

And it was Becky’s work that first pointed me to reports from the Utah Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records and Statistics. What I found there surprised me somewhat: deep, detailed tables on abortions in Utah.

Maybe that surprise was because I rarely see Utah’s abortion discussions come down to numbers. It’s such an emotional issue from all sides that signs and slogans seem to supply the debate rhetoric. But, truthfully, part of me also wondered if Utah’s government still had some old-fashioned reluctance to talk about the reality behind a sticky topic like abortion in the public sphere — and that it might be reflected in our data gathering.

Fortunately, though, Utah does keep solid track of abortion statistics in Utah — not just how many occur, but who is getting them, where, when, and for what reasons. Note that the latest year that we have data from is 2019, which gives us a pre-pandemic baseline of what we might expect from abortions in a “normal” year — before the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

Becky’s reporting has included most of these statistics, to be sure, but I thought it might be helpful to include them all in one place. So let’s take a look at the data, and use it to answer 10 questions about the reality of abortion in Utah.

How many abortions are happening in Utah?

Abortion rates, frankly, have plummeted over the past 30 years.

You’ll see the term “live births” used throughout this article. That’s a statistic indicating the number of babies born in Utah who show definitive signs of life at the time of birth.

For every 10 live births in Utah, there used to be about one abortion. Recently, though, the frequency of abortions has been essentially cut in half. It’s enough that abortions, in total, have shrunk over the long run even as Utah’s population has soared.

However, that trend reversed itself during the pandemic. While we don’t have data from the Department of Health for the past two years, Becky polled Planned Parenthood and Wasatch Women’s Center, the two main abortion providers in Utah, to find out how the number of abortions had changed. In total, they reported 3,037 abortions in 2020, and 3,388 in 2021. From those two providers alone, we can conclude there’s been a significant increase in abortions in the past two years.

Where are abortions happening in Utah?

Individual health districts keep track of the number of abortions from residents in their jurisdictions. In particular, Summit County’s health district saw more abortions per live birth in 2019 than any other area of Utah, with 130 abortions per 1,000 live births.

Salt Lake County had the second most abortions, with 99 abortions per 1,000 live births. Abortion rates in Tooele, Davis, and Utah counties, meanwhile, were below state averages.

For what reasons do women get abortions in Utah?

The majority of Utah abortions (1,807 in 2019) are for socioeconomic reasons, women who feel that their social or economic status in life means it’s a bad idea to continue with the pregnancy. A further 812 indicated that their abortion was elective.

Meanwhile, 76 indicated that they were seeking an abortion due to contraceptive failure, and 31 due to a fetal malformation. Eight women sought an abortion after rape, six due to mental health, and six due to their lives being in danger.

How old are women when they get abortions in Utah?

The most frequent category of women who receive abortions on a per-capita basis is for those ages 20 to 24, who had 6.7 abortions per 1,000 females in that age group. The second most common age group was 25 to 29, who had 5.9 abortions per 1,000 females, followed by women ages 30 to 34, who received 4.1 abortions per 1,000. Those ages 15 to 19 came next, with 2.8 abortions per 1,000 females, followed by women ages 35 to 39 with 2.6 abortions per 1,000 females and, finally, those from 40 to 44 who had 0.8 abortions per 1,000 females.

How educated are women who get abortions in Utah?

Similarly, it’s slightly more common for women who are getting abortions to have had at least some collegiate education than to have just a high school diploma. Those who hadn’t yet finished high school represented 241 abortions, less than 10% of the total, in Utah in 2019. Those who had finished high school but hadn’t gone further had 1,101 abortions, while those with more than a high school education had 1,114 abortions.

How many married women are getting abortions vs. unmarried women in Utah?

I included this graph as a line chart because it shows how the decrease in abortions over time has come from one group in particular. Married women are getting about the same number of abortions as they did in 2000. But the number of abortions among unmarried women has fallen by nearly a third in that same time.

Now, to be sure, unmarried women still get about 10 times as many abortions per capita as married women. But the difference between the groups is shrinking.

Have women who get abortions in Utah already had children?

I was also surprised to see how many Utah abortion recipients had also previously had children. Indeed, nearly half had previously had a live birth. Given that the nation’s infant mortality rate is less than 1%, it’s at least fair to say that, again, nearly half the women who had abortions in 2019 had given birth to a child who likely was still alive.

Have women who get abortions in Utah already had abortions?

While many women who sought an abortion had previously had children, more than three-fourths (76%) had not previously had an abortion. Just 162 of the abortions were given to women who had already undergone more than one abortion.

At the time of pregnancy, did women or their partners use contraception?

This is an interesting one, too. More than half the women who got abortions in 2019 said that they or their partner were using at least one form of contraception at the time of pregnancy.

Most of those who said they were using birth control, however, were turning to those in the “least effective” category: condoms, withdrawal, a sponge, spermicide, or natural family planning. But nearly 450 abortions came after at least one of the sexual partners involved was using a medium-effective or highly effective form of contraception.

When in the woman’s pregnancy do abortions occur in Utah?

Abortions in 2019 were happening relatively early in a woman’s pregnancy. More than two-thirds came in the first two months of pregnancy, and most immediately after, it seems, a woman’s first missed period might be likely to happen.

Indeed, only about 10% of abortions came after the first trimester. And only a further 5% or so came after the 18-week mark, the time frame in which abortions are currently banned in Utah. Beyond that, abortions were rare in Utah. You can see the vast difference between the state of affairs under the 14-day temporary restraining order and the 2019 law allowing abortions up to 18 weeks.

I’m not sure I have a lot of faith in this data changing any hearts and minds. People tend to be entrenched on their abortion positions. But passionate debate doesn’t have to be uninformed debate. A look at the reality of what is happening with abortion in Utah might help.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.