A strict abortion law that took effect in Texas in 2021 may have led to nearly 10,000 more births than expected in the last nine months of 2022, according to research published in the journal JAMA.
Texas Senate Bill 8, which banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy with few exceptions, took effect nearly 10 months before the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade and revoked the federal right to abortion.
For their study, published last week, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed years of birth records to understand how the state law may have affected local trends.
Using data from other states and from Texas in years prior to the new law, they established a version of what birth trends in Texas would have probably looked like without the law and compared that with the actual number of births reported.
They found that from April to December 2022, the first months that would have reflected the effects of the policy change, there were about 297,000 total births: about 3% more than the 287,000 births that would have been expected without the law.
“Texas is really unique in that it is one of the states that had one of the higher abortion rates – and, because of the population size, a relatively large number of abortions,” said Suzanne Bell, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the research. “At first blush, seeing the number was higher than I might have anticipated or hoped it might be.”
But the 3% increase is relatively in line with what other research predicted might happen, she said.
“There were still a lot of people who were going further afield for abortion care or who were self-managing their abortion,” said Bell, who studies patterns of contraceptive use and abortion. “But our results suggest that not everyone was able to overcome those barriers, and many were forced an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy to term.”
Experts say that it’s tough to use these findings to project what the broader effects of the Dobbs decision might be.
Earlier research found that the number of Texas residents who traveled out of state for an abortion spiked after the state’s Senate bill took effect, but that may not be an option for as many people under Dobbs, as many neighboring states – more than a dozen states nationwide – have also enacted abortion bans.
“Now, those people are traveling much more, and those trips are getting longer, and there’s definitely a possibility that births in Texas or another state with restrictions could be larger in a post-Dobbs time,” Bell said.
“During this period, there’s also growing knowledge of self-managed abortion using medication and an outpouring of support to access resources. Whether that is sustainable – and how much it will offset the restrictions – is yet to be determined.”
Other factors may affect birth trends, too.
Poor policies around paid family leave and options for child care create challenges for many in the United States, and that hasn’t changed post-Dobbs, said Beth Jarosz, a demographer and program director with the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau who focuses on child well-being.
“With the end of stimulus payments and some pandemic-era social network programs, birth rates may decline because people don’t feel like they have the resources to properly care for kids,” said Jarosz, who was not involved with the new Johns Hopkins research. “Will birth rates fall faster because of that or rise faster because of more restrictive abortion access? The implications are anyone’s guess.”
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Much research suggests that the impacts of restricted access to abortion care will be felt unequally, with the ability to seek abortion care intersecting with poverty, racism and other sociodemographic factors. Bell says that she and her fellow researchers continue to explore those demographic differences, but she stresses the importance of focusing on the individual experience, too.
“People who are denied a needed abortion experience a range of negative impacts on their physical and mental health,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the short- and long-term implications of a personal trajectory that may have been rerouted for the 9,799 people who were denied an abortion under SB8.”