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After the Dobbs decision, birth rates are up in states with abortion ban states

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're only now beginning to understand the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision last year to reverse the constitutional right to abortion. A new study shows that in states that have abortion bans, births have increased. Economists at Georgia Tech and Middlebury College conducted this research, published by the nonprofit Institute of Labor Economics. Caitlin Myers of Middlebury is one of the study's co-authors. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAITLIN MYERS: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How much of a difference did abortion bans make in the number of babies born compared to states where abortion remains widely available?

MYERS: Well, it increased the number of births in states enforcing total bans. Our research shows that near-total bans on abortions resulted in about a 2.3% increase in births, relative to what we would have expected if those states weren't enforcing bans. That is about 30,000 additional births on an annual basis as a result of abortion bans that were enforced in the first months after the Dobbs ruling.

SHAPIRO: And so you're noting here that some states have partial bans. Your research looked into states with total bans. That 30,000 births number - can you put it into perspective for us? Is it higher or lower than you would have anticipated?

MYERS: Yeah, it's really quite a large number. It reflects about a fifth to perhaps a fourth of people in those states who are seeking abortions and who otherwise would have obtained abortions, who aren't accessing abortion services as a result of the ban. So it's a significant number of people in those states. And based on what we learned from the decade prior to Dobbs, I had predicted what the effect of the first set of bans on births might be. And the prediction was about 30,000 fewer births. So when we came through and measured that, it was perhaps, in some ways, not surprising at all.

SHAPIRO: Can I ask how you measure and identify people who would have gotten an abortion but for the ban? Is that just self-reporting?

MYERS: It is not self-reporting because it is very difficult to obtain accurate self-reported information on abortion seeking, as you can imagine. So there's a real challenge for empirical researchers like me in this field. And the way that we address this challenge and meet it is we are using information published by the CDC on births.

And so what we're able to see is that births are increasing in the banned states relative to a set of control states that did not ban abortion and that had births that were trending really similarly right up until the Dobbs decision. And then it's right as the Dobbs decision happens that we observed this very sharp and immediate divergence in births in the states that ban abortion. And so it's reasonable to infer that the reason these 13 banned states suddenly start to have higher births is due to the bans.

SHAPIRO: We know that some people cross state borders in order to terminate a pregnancy. Can you describe the difference between those who did and those who carried out the pregnancy, those who didn't travel?

MYERS: Yeah. So what we can see in the data available so far is that people have been flooding out of banned states to states where abortions remain legal, seeking abortion services. We also know that requests have been increasing to organizations that will mail-order medication abortion into banned states.

What we know, though, is that not everybody finds one of these avenues to access services, and the people who are the most likely not to find a way to access abortion services are people who are young and women of color. We see much larger effects for Black women and Hispanic women. The other interesting dimension of inequality created by bans is how far away people live from the states that haven't banned abortion. So the other interesting thing that we can see in the data is that all bans aren't created equal.

SHAPIRO: Like, Texas is a very big state. And so if you live in Texas, you might have a much harder time traveling to end a pregnancy than if you are just over the state line from Illinois, for example.

MYERS: Exactly. And so if you look at our estimates, the effect of Missouri's near-total ban is very close to zero. We observed very little increase in births in Missouri. Compare that to Texas, where we estimate more than a 5% increase in births.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MYERS: And the most likely explanation is that Missouri's ban had very little de facto effect on abortion access in Missouri. Even before that state had banned abortion, there was only one abortion facility remaining. It was in Saint Louis, very close to abortion facilities that were just across the state border in southern Illinois. And so Missouri's ban only increased the driving distance to the average abortion facility for a Missouri resident by about two miles.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MYERS: Compare that to Texas. The average Texas resident experienced more than a 450-mile increase in driving distance to the nearest facility. Many of the states near Texas also banned, so the - for instance, a Texas woman living in, let's say, Houston who is seeking an abortion now finds that the nearest facility is in Wichita, Kan., which is a day's drive away.

SHAPIRO: Your study is the first to put the Dobbs ruling into this particular kind of perspective. What do you want people to understand about this information? What do you want people to do with it?

MYERS: Well, I don't think, as a scientist, it's up to me to have an opinion about what people should do with the information. I do think it's important to have evidence and to have information about how these abortion bans are impacting people on the ground. We had heard a lot of speculation around the time that the bans were beginning to be enforced that people who wanted abortions were all still going to find a way. They were going to travel. They were going to mail-order medications. They would find a way.

I think it's important to understand that there is a large minority of people, probably around a fifth of people living in banned states who have been trapped, meaning they haven't found a way. They've been trapped by distance or poverty or other factors in their lives. And as a result, there's an increase in births that are occurring for a particularly poor and vulnerable population. And I hope that evidence is relevant to the public and policymakers as we think about how to support women and children.

SHAPIRO: That's Caitlin Myers, economics professor at Middlebury College and co-author of the study "The Effects Of The Dobbs Decision On Fertility." Thank you very much.

MYERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.