A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Santorum Wrong on Abortion, Birth Facts


Rick Santorum incorrectly stated that “one in three pregnancies end in abortion” in the United States. It’s actually fewer than one in four.

Santorum appeared on a New Hampshire radio talk show, blaming abortions for “causing Social Security and Medicare to be underfunded.” But he not only misstated the abortion statistic, he also got it wrong when he said that “our birthrate is now below replacement rate for the first time in our history.” The total fertility rate, not the birthrate, is used to determine the stability of a nation’s population, and the U.S. total fertility rate was below its replacement rate from 1972 to 2006. Finally, Santorum also misrepresented France as lagging far behind its replacement rate.

The former senator from Pennsylvania, who is considering running for the Republican nomination for president, appeared March 29 on “The Advocates,” a radio talk show on WEZS-AM in Laconia, N.H.

(Click image to listen to Rick Santorum’s interview on WEZS-AM.)

Santorum agreed with a caller who claimed “there would be no problem” funding Social Security if not for abortion.

Caller, March 29: The real problem is — and nobody even suggests this, I haven’t heard it anyplace — is the 50 million abortions in this country a year. Say 25 million, half of them, were paying Social Security taxes and the Medicare, there would be no problem. Why hasn’t somebody said that?

Santorum: … This caller is absolutely right. The reason Social Security is in big trouble is we don’t have enough workers to support the retirees. Well, a third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion, because one in three pregnancies end in abortion.

The caller was referring to the 50 million abortions in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. He merely slipped when he said there were 50 million abortions “a year.” But Santorum was wrong when he said that a third of pregnancies end in abortion.

In a March 2011 report, the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute reported that there were 22.4 abortions for every 100 pregnancies in 2008, excluding miscarriages. (The chart can be found in Table 1 on page 3.) The 2008 data is the most recent available, according to Guttmacher spokeswoman Rebecca Wind. The institute’s chart goes back to 1973, and the abortion ratio never reached 33 per 100 pregnancies. Its peak was 30.4 in 1983.

Guttmacher favors abortion rights, but the abortion statistics it gathers are the most detailed available and are widely cited by both sides in the debate. And regardless of whether the abortion ratio is 33 or 30 or 22 percent, Santorum cannot assume that those aborted fetuses reduced the U.S. population by an equal number of people — which is what he suggests when linking abortions to Social Security’s financial problems. In an e-mail, Wind said that “most women obtain abortions to postpone childbearing not to prevent it altogether,” and noted that some of the aborted pregnancies “would have ended in miscarriage.”

Wind, March 31: The group of women most likely to have an abortion are in their early 20s. They may already have one child and don’t want another at that time, or they may be childless but desire to have children in the future. Either way, the abortion postpones the birth of their child, it does not eliminate it — and there is no impact on the overall population. Some abortions actually terminate pregnancies that would have ended in miscarriage, so again you can’t assume that every abortion would have otherwise resulted in a live birth.

In agreeing with the caller about the impact of abortion on Social Security and Medicare, Santorum went on to blame the collapse of “all of these programs” on the declining replacement rate — which is needed for a nation to maintain a stable population — in the United States and Europe.

Santorum, March 29: We’re seeing our birthrate is now below replacement rate for the first time in our history and in all of these programs — look what’s going on in Europe. They’re collapsing. You see all of these countries in horrible situations. Why? Because their birthrate is 1.2. You need 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age to maintain your population, and in France and Italy it is 1.2, 1.3, so they’re collapsing and we are going in the same direction.

Santorum is wrong to say that births in the United States are “now below the replacement rate for the first time in our history.” Births were actually below the replacement rate for nearly a quarter of a century — from 1972 through 2005 — before exceeding the “replacement rate” for the most recent two years on record.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines the replacement rate as “the rate at which a given generation can exactly replace itself, generally considered to be 2,100 births per 1,000 women.” (That rate assumes “no international migration,” which accounts for “almost one-third of the current population growth,” according to the Census Bureau.) A nation’s replacement rate is best measured by the total fertility rate, which uses current data of live births to women ages 15 to 44 to estimate a “completed family size,” as the CDC explains in a 2010 report:

CDC, Aug. 9, 2010: The total fertility rate (TFR) summarizes the potential impact of current fertility patterns on completed family size. The TFR estimates the number of births that a hypothetical cohort of 1,000 women would have if they experienced throughout their childbearing years the same age-specific birth rates observed in a given year.

In a 2007 report, the CDC said that the U.S. total fertility rate had been below the replacement rate for much of the 1970s and all of the 1980s and 1990s — a trend that didn’t turn around until 2006. The U.S. total fertility rate in 2006 was 2,101 — a shade above the replacement rate needed to maintain a stable population. “The year 2006 marks the first year since 1971 in which the U.S. TFR was above replacement,” the report said.

That trend continued in 2007. The Census Bureau’s 2011 Statistical Abstract for the United States shows the total fertility rate at 2,120 in 2007 — the most recent data that we could find — maintaining the trend started in 2006. The CDC noted the trend in its 2010 report.

CDC, Aug. 9, 2010: The U.S. TFR was above replacement for the second consecutive year in 2007, a trend not seen since 1970–1971.

A total fertility rate of 2,100 births per 1,000 women is equal to the 2.1 children per childbearing woman, as Santorum put it. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that this year the U.S. total fertility rate will be 2.06, which would be lower than the replacement rate — although, as we noted, not for the first time.

The total fertility rate in France was 2.0 in 2008, the most recent data available, and has remained largely unchanged in the last decade, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The CIA estimates France’s total fertility rate at 1.96 for 2011.

Santorum was closer to the truth in Italy, where the total fertility rate was 1.4 in 2008 — slightly higher than it was in the early 2000s. The CIA estimates it at 1.39 for this year.

— Eugene Kiely and Michael Morse, with Lara Seligman