With the possibility of a nationwide ban on abortion becoming law, I decided to explore some of the potential demographic and social effects on Whatcom County. This article is not meant to be conclusive, but rather, to stimulate thought and discussion. But before offering thoughts on the issue, some background will be useful.
As can be seen in the graph, the abortion rate for Whatcom County and for the state as a whole declined between 2009 and 2020. The rate shown is known as a “crude rate” because it does not account for the age breakdowns in the study population, which in this case is women of childbearing age. Washington State Department of Health follows the convention, as do most health departments, of grouping childbearing age in 5-year sets from 10-14 years of age to 45-49 years of age, even though very few, if any, pregnancies occur to those aged 10-14 in a given county.
For the purposes of this article, I use a “total abortion rate,” which is the number of abortions, on average, each woman will have over her lifetime. In 2009, the total abortion rate for Whatcom County was 0.34 per 1000 women of childbearing age. This means that for about every 3000 women, one abortion occurred. By 2020, the total abortion rate in Whatcom County had fallen to 0.25; which can be interpreted as one abortion for every 4000 women.
These total abortion rates for Whatcom County are well below the state as a whole: In 2009, the total abortion rate for Washington was 0.50 per 1000 women of childbearing age, or one abortion for every 2000 women. By 2020. Washington’s abortion rate had fallen to 0.32, or one per 3000 women.
The decline in abortion took place across all age groups (i.e.,, 10-14, 15-19,…, 40-44, 45-49) for both the State as a whole and Whatcom County. As an example, for Whatcom County women, aged 15-19, the 2009 abortion rate was 12.44 per 1000. By 2020 it had fallen substantially to 4.39. And like the total abortion rate above, Whatcom County’s abortion rates for women aged 15-19 are well below that of the state as a whole: The 2009 statewide rate for women aged 15-19, was 16.78 per 1000 women, which by 2020 had also dropped considerably, to 6.58.
Not only did Whatcom County’s abortion rate fall between 2009 and 2020, but the “total fertility rate” fell as well. The total fertility rate indicates the number of children Whatcom County women were anticipated to have over their lifetimes. In 2009, the total fertility rate for Whatcom County was 1.63, meaning that in 2009, local women were anticipated to have, on average, 1.63 children over their lifetimes. By 2020, this rate had fallen to 1.55. For the state as a whole, the 2009 total fertility rate was 1.84, which fell to 1.62 by 2020.
As was the case with the total abortion rate and the fertility rate for those aged 15-19, we can see that the total fertility rates for Whatcom County are well below those of the state as a whole. Importantly, all of these total fertility rates are well below 2.1, which is considered by demographers to be the level needed to prevent a population from declining in the absence of migration. That is, slightly more than two children are needed to replace their two parents, given that some children will die before reaching adulthood (and their ability to reproduce).
Therefore, it is not surprising that pregnancy rates also fell overall from 2009 to 2020, and in specific age groups as well. In 2009, the total pregnancy rate for 1000 women of childbearing age in Whatcom County was 1.98; by 2020 it was down to 1.81. A similar decline is found for the state as a whole: In 2009, the total pregnancy rate for 1000 women of childbearing years was 2.47; by 2020 it was down to 1.94.
In concert with these other declines, a drop also occurred in the number of abortions per 1000 pregnancies. In 2009, there were 6.28 abortions per every 1000 pregnancies in Whatcom County; by 2020, this rate had declined to 5.99. A similar decline in this rate is also found for the state as a whole: From 10.70 in 2009 to 8.76 abortions per 1000 pregnancies in 2020. However, this decline was not universal among all of the age groups, a point to which I return at the conclusion.
So, what might be the demographic impacts of a nationwide abortion ban on Whatcom County? This is where the background material comes into focus. If we subtract the county’s 2020 total abortion rate (.25) from its total pregnancy rate (1.81), we can approximate the county’s total fertility rate (1.55) in 2020. This suggests that if a nationwide abortion ban had been in effect in 2020, Whatcom County’s total fertility rate would have been 1.81 instead of 1.55. That is, instead of expecting 1.55 children over her lifetime, a woman in Whatcom County could expect to have 1.81 children over her lifetime. This translates into approximately 25 unwanted children for every 1000 women, which for 2020 in Whatcom County would have, in turn, translated to approximately 1,296 unwanted children. This may appear to be just “another statistic,” but it translates into social and related effects – emotional and economic - not only on the parents, who will be dealing with additional children, but their families and institutional structures that deal with children, as well as on the “unwanted” children themselves.
A specific and noticeable impact would be on young women, those aged 15-19, where the rate of abortions per 1000 pregnancies for 2020 is very high in Whatcom County at 464.29. That is, there are 464.29 abortions per 1000 pregnancies among Whatcom County women aged 15-19. For the state as a whole, the rate is considerably less at 376.50.
If we consider political orientation, Whatcom County, when taken as a whole, is considered to be progressive. As the rate of 464.29 suggests, abortion is seen as a suitable means of terminating an undesired pregnancy among 15 - 19 year old women in Whatcom County. Even more to the point, if we compare Whatcom County to a conservative area such as Benton County, we find that its rate of abortions for women aged 15-19 is 297.62 per 1000 pregnancies. This is not only lower than the state as a whole, but far below the rate of 464.29 that we see in Whatcom County.
This variation is a manifestation of the different attitude toward abortion in conservative areas. Even though there are reproductive healthcare options available in Benton and nearby counties, abortion is not readily seen as a suitable means for a young woman to end an undesired pregnancy. In turn, if there is a nationwide ban on abortion, this comparison suggests especially high deleterious social impacts on young women, their families, and the institutional structures in progressive areas, such as Whatcom County. This will further serve to amplify the risks and disparities already facing young Americans by adding to their “perfect storm” of unintentional injuries, suicides and homicides.