Study shows increase in birth rates in Texas after abortion law. But questions remain.
More than a year since the US Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade lifted, pregnant women face a radically changed landscape of challenges and choices as the number of abortion providers in more than a dozen states has dropped to zero.
However, it has been difficult for researchers to directly measure the exact impact of the decision, especially when it comes to a key question: how many more babies will be born from abortion bans?
On Thursday, researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health published one of the first serious attempts at an answer. They focused on Texas, where a law that went into effect in September 2021, nine months before the court’s Dobbs decision, effectively banned abortions at six weeks. The analysis found that between April and December last year, the state recorded nearly 10,000 more births than would have been expected without the law, or 3 percent more.
The finding, which cheered anti-abortion advocates, may indicate a striking number of full-term pregnancies that otherwise would not have been possible without the legislation known as Senate Bill 8.
Researchers monitoring the new abortion bans across the country have expected a resulting surge in births, but perhaps not as big.
“It looks like they showed that the birth rate in Texas has increased more than we expected,” said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College who studies abortion but did not take part in the study. “The conclusion I cannot draw at this point is that all of these overbirths are due to SB 8. It may be the case with some of them, but I don’t think it will be the case with all of them. It’s just too high.”
Even the authors of the study, published as a two-page research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association, didn’t attribute their estimated rise in births solely to the unusual law that allows civil lawsuits against paramedics who perform abortions after fetal heart activity begins, usually around six weeks . The results at least indicated that “not everyone who could have had an abortion without SB 8 could have had an abortion,” they wrote.
Nevertheless, the authors were convinced of their methods and results.
“This pattern was unique to Texas,” said Alison Gemmill, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the study’s researchers. She said the team looked at each of the other 49 states and Washington, DC, but found no evidence of differences from expected birth counts. If there were other explanations for the increase, she added, they would have to apply only to Texas and post-SB 8 abortion law.
Quantifying the impact of abortion bans has been difficult for researchers because of the delay in obtaining detailed data on births.
In other states where abortion bans went into effect after the Dobbs decision in June 2022, researchers are still collecting vital statistics to study the impact of new bans on births. It was thought that these bans would have an even greater impact on those seeking an abortion than Texas’ SB 8 law, since many of them banned all abortions and were implemented in many contiguous states, restricting travel for Women aggravated to other states for procedures.
The study, released on Thursday, which examined data from 2016, relied on preliminary birth dates for 2022 because more comprehensive data was not available. It did not include demographic information, such as maternal age or race, that could be compared to previous years and used to understand other factors that may have played a role.
The researchers then created a statistical model of what Texas would have looked like without the abortion law. This enabled them to estimate how many births there would have been in this case.
“This is an indirect way of measuring what we can’t measure,” Ms Gemmill said. “We don’t know the decisions behind whether people wanted an abortion or whether they weren’t able to.”
Larger changes in birth rates complicate researchers’ efforts. The number of births has been lower in Texas and across the United States in recent years, a trend that was exacerbated at the height of the Covid emergency. But since the pandemic in Texas, there has been an increase in births: Last year there were around 389,000 births, down from 398,000 in 2016 but more than the 2020 number.
Other factors may have led to higher fertility trends during this period, Ms Myers said, including an increase in the number of foreign-born mothers, many in Texas. Ms Gemmill said this factor is difficult to measure without detailed demographic data on births in 2022.
Despite the new SB 8 restrictions, many Texas women still obtained abortions, either by having them before the six-week deadline, by traveling abroad for their procedures, or by taking abortion drugs themselves. There was a spate of pills being mailed in Texas, and some Texans were able to have abortions in Mexico.
Still, anti-abortion activists viewed the Johns Hopkins study as evidence that their success in severely restricting abortion in Texas had had the desired effect: more pregnancies going to term.
“Every baby saved from an abortion should be celebrated!” John Seago, the president of Texas Right to Life, said in a statement. “This new study underscores the significant success of our movement over the past two years, and we look forward to helping our state’s mothers and families care for their children.”