New Survey Findings : Ob/Gyns Change Little in Abortion Attitudes

Times Staff Writer

In the first poll of its kind to be taken in 14 years, a survey released this week by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) showed little change in the attitude of obstetricians and gynecologists toward abortion.

Of 1,300 ob/gyns who responded to the poll, 84% said abortion should be performed in some circumstances, while 13% said it should never be performed, and 3% had no answer.

In 1971, 83% of the ob/gyns surveyed felt abortion may be performed at a patient’s request, or upon a physician’s recommendation, and 17% of the college’s physicians polled opposed this position.

ACOG executive director Dr. Warren Pearse, reached by telephone at his office in Washington, said the significance of the new survey is “to confirm what many people believed, but some continued to doubt, and that is that there has been very little change in the attitude of obstetricians/gyne-cologists toward abortion.”

Moreover, Pearse said the new study closely paralleled a similar survey taken several years ago in Canada, “which showed almost the same attitudes (among practicing ob/gyns) as we saw here.”


Part of Larger Survey

Pearse said the abortion questions were included in a larger survey that sought to gather broad demographic data about practitioners in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. He said his organization had decided to include the abortion questions because “over the years there has developed a belief that the attitude of physicians toward abortion have become more restrictive.” The “fellows of the college,” Pearse said, “who oppose abortion--about one out of seven or so--have said for some time that if you were to survey physicians, you would find that their attitudes have changed. We found this was not so.”

Pearse said there was no correlation between the ACOG abortion survey and the recent escalation of political and public information efforts by both sides of the highly charged abortion issue. In fact, said Pearse, “we began working on this survey and developed the questionnaire more than a year ago.”

In this first major study in recent years of ob/gyn attitudes and practices regarding abortion, the college found also that nine out of 10 physicians under 35 years of age and female physicians of all ages were most likely to agree that abortions should be performed in some circumstances. Doctors between the ages of 45 and 54 were most likely to feel that abortions should never be performed.

Among the 13% of ob/gyns who said they oppose abortion under any circumstances, 55% said they refer their patients who want an elective abortion to other physicians, while 39% do not. Pearse said this indicated that “physicians, despite their own beliefs, are making accommodations for the attitudes of their patients.”

Of the ob/gyns surveyed who said that abortions might be performed under some circumstances, 34% said they performed the abortion procedures themselves. Two-thirds of them said they performed four or fewer abortions each month. Five percent of the physicians who perform abortions, or fewer than 2% of all ob/gyns, said they perform more than 25 per month.

More than nine out of 10 of the doctors who felt that abortions should be performed under some circumstances cited the woman’s physical health, rape or incest and fetal abnormalities as legitimate reasons for first-trimester abortions. Among other acceptable reasons for first-trimester abortions were the woman’s mental health (84%), the woman’s personal choice (75%) and socioeconomic difficulties (71%).

“Not to our surprise,” Pearse said, “after the first 12 weeks, physicians become increasingly critical of the abortion procedure.”

Still, fetal abnormalities were considered an acceptable reason for past-the-first-trimester abortions by 84% of those surveyed, followed by the woman’s personal health (75%), rape or incest (68%), the woman’s mental health (56%), socioeconomic difficulties (36%) and the woman’s personal choice (36%).

The ACOG’s Laurie Hall said the survey was conducted in April and May of this year by a Washington-based research firm, Needham Porter Novelli and Associates.