Anyone who follows reproductive politics is likely aware that the doctors who provide abortion services have been rapidly aging. Now, a new survey of abortion clinics helps us quantify the situation. It reports that nearly two-thirds of providers (63 percent) are aged 50 or older.
The survey has some limitations. It looks only at clinics and not at doctors who provide occasional abortion services as part of a broader ob/gyn practice. The survey was circulated in 2002 and I have no clue why results are only now being published.
Still, the statistic on the aging of abortion providers seems solid enough that I decided to do the math and try to project what it means for the future availability of abortion services.
Let’s say we have 100 doctors. Assuming an average retirement age of 65, over the next 15 years 63 will retire, leaving 37 still in practice. This assumption is subject to error because while some providers may stay on past age 65 for lack of a successor, others may retire earlier due to burnout or fears for their personal safety.
Now let’s assume that the rate of entry into practice has been linear over the past 25 years – in other words, that the 37 younger doctors began practicing over the past 25 years and trickled into the field at a steady pace. This is probably optimistic. Training in abortion techniques has become less common in medical schools, and it’s more likely that the number of entrants per year has declined steadily over time.
Over the course of the next 15 years, the retirees will be replaced by (37 divided by 25 for the number of entrants per year) x (15 years) = 22 new doctors. Instead of the original 100 doctors, we’ll have only 59.
In other words, we can expect the number of abortion providers to decrease by about 40 percent over the next 15 years.
However you do the math: The current shortage of abortion providers is on course to become an all-out crisis.
Let's make one further assumption: A safe abortion, performed by a qualified, trained doctor, is preferable to an unsafe one. So I won't respond to comments that demonize abortion in general; that's not what this post is about. While I recognize that some opponents of legal abortion may see the provider shortage as an another route toward reducing the number of abortions, that idea belongs in fantasyland. There are much more effective strategies for reducing abortions that don't put women's health at risk.