I’ve been a clinic escort for almost a year now. In this time, I have heard a lot of assumptions being made on the sidewalk. Protesters frequently make assumptions about clients and companions based on their age (assuming that the youngest woman in a group is the one obtaining the abortion), ethnicity (assuming that a client doesn’t speak English because of their appearance), and clothing (one protester routinely shouts “God is watching!” to women who enter the clinic, but shouted “Allah is watching!” to a client who was wearing a head scarf). Protesters also make broad assumptions about the reasons behind a client’s behavior. If a woman is crying, they assume that she must be crying because she knows that abortion is wrong, or because the escorts are making her cry. I would argue that it’s more likely that she’s crying because the protesters are crowding up next to her as she walks down the sidewalk, saying cruel things to her, or holding up graphic signs. The reality, however, is that none of us except the client knows why the client is upset. It’s best to not make assumptions.

The protesters’ assumptions range from infuriating (such as the ones I described above) to ridiculous (my favorite assumption is that the female clinic escorts are lesbians who have had abortions). One morning, I overheard one protester making some wild assumptions about probability. She rattled off the figure that one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage[1]. And then she said that since there were four clients standing in the lobby (you can see where she’s going with this!)…that one of them must be miscarrying. A few fellow escorts and I had a good laugh about it later. How silly this protester was to extrapolate a finding (one in four pregnancies) to women (one in four women), and then to extrapolate even further to make a bold claim about a specific group of four women who were standing in the clinic!

But wait a minute. Isn’t it time we turned the mirror back on ourselves (pro-choice individuals) and examined our own claims to see if we might be making similar assumptions?

That’s right – I’m talking about the “1 in 3” slogan: “1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime!” If you’ve been involved in discussions about abortion, you’ve probably heard this figure. A quick Google search reveals an entire website devoted to this figure. I’ve heard fellow pro-choice individuals quote this figure or even use it to make generalizations about particular groups of women, such as suggesting that one-third of a given group of women will have an abortion.

I’ll be honest – things that fit nicely into a sound bite make me skeptical. So I did some investigating.

The “1 in 3” figure comes from a very legitimate, well-conducted study that was published in an peer-reviewed scientific journal. However, a close reading of the study reveals that there are very important caveats that are associated with this figure. This is true of any scientific study! I am not implying that the findings from this study are false or fraudulent in any manner. Rather, I am emphasizing the need to speak appropriately about the study’s findings, and not extrapolate too far.  Otherwise, you get this:


So, what does this study actually say? The researchers report that the data were collected by surveying women who were obtaining abortions during a particular time period. Because it’s impossible to survey every single woman who obtains an abortion, they (carefully, and appropriately) surveyed a large sample of women from clinics so that they could make inferences about a population (women in the United States). The researchers used estimates of first-abortion rates within specific age groups to estimate the lifetime incidence of abortion. To quote: “The cumulative first-abortion rate increases with age, and women aged 40 and older had a rate of 300.9 per 1,000 women. Put differently, an estimated 30.1% of women aged 15–44 in 2008 will have an abortion by age 45 if exposed to prevailing abortion rates throughout their reproductive lives.”  The researchers appropriately highlight the limitations for this finding: “Underreporting of abortions is common on nationally representative surveys of women. Our analysis assumes that women obtaining abortions were more likely to report previous terminations, but even in this clinical setting some patients may have failed to report them. This would mean that the estimate of the lifetime incidence of abortion is artificially high.” (Emphasis added by me, not the researchers).

Hm, that’s a lot to digest. It’s hard to imagine quoting the entire above passage when having a discussion about abortion prevalence. It’s a lot shorter to say “1 in 3 women will have an abortion.” And I understand – caveats and limitation aren’t sexy. It’s tempting to want a sound bite, something that surprises people and makes them sit up and pay attention. But misusing research findings, even unintentionally, does nothing to further our cause. It is misleading to assume that one-third of a given group of women (such as a group of female protesters standing on the sidewalk) will have an abortion, or that one-third of your friends will have an abortion. I am not implying that anyone who has used the “1 in 3” figure when discussing abortion has been intentionally trying to twist the facts or mislead people. What I am saying is that there are a lot of critical limitations to consider with research – things that don’t fit cleanly into sound bites or onto posters.

So what CAN we take away from this research? Rather than use the findings from this study to estimate how many of the women in our lives will have an abortion, perhaps it is more important (or more productive) to highlight the study’s finding that abortion is not limited to a specific group of women. These data reflect what escorts see on the sidewalk – women from all walks of life have abortions. Married women and unmarried women, women from various ethnic groups, women who are very young and women who are not so young, women of various socioeconomic statuses, women who already have children and women who do not have children. And women of various religious affiliations have abortions; the majority of women who had an abortion 2008 were religiously affiliated (yes, this even includes individuals who identified as Catholic and fundamentalist/born-again Protestant!). These findings resonate with an escort’s goal to not make assumptions about the cars who pull up to the curb at the clinic. Even if there is a pro-life sticker on the bumper, or a rosary hanging from the rear view mirror, the passengers in the car may still be seeking an abortion. Abortion is something that is chosen by a wide variety of women. Therefore, it’s certainly possible that someone in your life has had or will have an abortion, regardless of their life circumstances or demographic. You just can’t say (with certainty) that one-third of the women in your life have had or will have an abortion.

Finally, I want to make one additional point. In my reading of the study, there is one finding that truly stands out to me, but that seems to have been overshadowed by the “1 in 3” estimate. Although overall abortion rates declined approximately 8% from 2000 to 2008, there was one subgroup of women for whom abortion rates increased (by approximately 17%): women living in poverty. Given the significant financial burdens associated with abortion, we should be alarmed by this finding. The researchers suggest that legislative action aimed at restricting access to contraception, including abortion, may have an especially detrimental impact on women in poverty. I agree.

Anti-choice individuals make more than enough assumptions when it comes to abortion. We don’t need to be making any more. I propose that we extend our “don’t make assumptions” sidewalk policy to our general conversations about abortion. We will be most effective when we speak clearly and appropriately about the research on abortion – no assumptions needed.

[1] I was curious about the “one in four” claim and dug a little further.  It seems that estimates of miscarriage rates vary a bit, and recent research suggests that it’s fairly nuanced.

6 thoughts on “Assumptions

  1. You know, I don’t have a problem with the 1in 3 if it helps get the point across. I think it can be a good conversation opener to explain it in more detail to those who are interested in the nuances. I do understand we don’t want to oversimplify like the antis, but we live in a world of soundbites and particularly in conservative areas abortion is not discussed unless it is followed by holocaust and slavery. I do wonder why the antis are obsessed with miscarriages? Are they hoping these women will simply go home and wait for their “baby” to “die” and suddenly realize they are 8 months pregnant? Shouldn’t they be cutting their 5 bazillion murdered babies number by 1/4 if fully a quarter of those pregnancies would have ended in miscarriages?

    • Hi KyBorn – thank you for your comments. I’ve also wondered about the miscarriage comments from them. My guess (purely a guess!) is that they’re trying to do anything, anything at all, to get them out of the clinic and delay them. So maybe if the woman thinks she’s having a miscarriage, she’ll leave the clinic, and then some other circumstance would prevent her from coming back. I’m not sure.

      For your comment about the 1 in 3, I respectfully disagree. I agree with you that we want to open the conversation somehow, and that we do live in a world where things are almost always packaged into small sound bites. However, there is something about using it to start a conversation or get someone to pay attention, and then explaining the actual finding later…that just feels squeamishly, uncomfortably close to the protester’s use of similar attention-grabbing things to get women out of the clinic. For example – “Are you having trouble paying your LG&E bills? We can help!” (*some restrictions apply…we’ll only pay your LG&E bills if you attend our weekly Bible study class). And then you’re also left with the problem of if someone uses the 1 in 3 to get someone’s attention, but they don’t want to hear nuances, they go off only hearing the 1 in 3. Or worse, they only hear the incorrect 1 in 3 (such as 1 in 3 of your friends, etc).

      Why can’t we think of a new sound bite that’s accurate, that doesn’t require so many nuances to explain? I wonder about a campaign that shows women from all different backgrounds and says something like “Which one has had an abortion?” and then you see “All of them” – something to emphasize that it’s women of all backgrounds and faiths and ages. For me, 1 in 3 is too nuanced to use as a soundbite, and discredits us greatly because it has been extrapolated way too far beyond its limits.

  2. Epona12, I really appreciate this article. I think it’s really hard to speak up when it’s our own people who are a bit off target. One in three is a lovely slogan, easy to remember, and it makes a strong impression. I’ve been guilty of using it, and I knew that it was more nuanced than that So I should know better.

    When we tweak our statistics like that, we undermine our argument, and we create a more all-or-nothing way of thinking – which is one of the big things I complain about with the protesters. So I have to let go of the easy sound bite and pay attention to the details.


    This article needed to be written. Thank you for doing it.

    • fml221, thank you for your thoughts. I agree with your reasoning on why it became so popular – I think people were really looking for something to make people realize that it’s not just a small group of women. But it sort of gained a life of its own.

      When my spouse read my post, he encouraged me to think of a substitute slogan to replace “1 in 3”. I’m still trying to think of one. It would be great to have something that relates to the demographic findings (that every group of women chooses abortion)…I’m a bit stuck, but something like “all of us” or something similar.

  3. kescort – Thank you!

    I agree with you that it will be nice when we reach the day that frequency no longer matters when it comes to abortion. However, I do think it holds utility today, when there are so many incorrect assumptions that it only happens to unmarried adolescents, etc. I just wish that the “1 in 3” had taken a giant backseat to the other findings from this particular research – specifically the fact that it’s something chosen by all kinds of women. I understand why “1 in 3” became so popular, but there are better ways to get the “it’s more frequent than you think” point across.

  4. Awesome! I have been churning this concept in my little mind for a while and you have captured it wonderfully here. Thanks!

    Won’t it be a beautiful day when the number or frequency of abortions becomes as relevant to public discourse as say, root canals or Viagra prescriptions?

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