Measuring the Impact of Dobbs in the Coming Years: Part One

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research

To any observer, the overturning of Roe was obviously an enormously significant event in our nation’s history and a political watershed. Abortion was no longer, by the Supreme Court’s fiat, legal in all fifty states, throughout pregnancy, for any and every reason or none at all.

But for pro-lifers, it represented so much more.  It meant, for the first time in nearly half a century that states would have the actual legal authority to protect unborn children, in many cases, from the moment of conception forward. Lives could be saved.

For those states which took the opportunity, it meant that it no longer had to be the case that 10%, 20%, 30% or even 50% of pregnancies would legally, almost automatically, end in abortion. Their laws could protect unborn children and their mothers, and the merchants of death could be limited or even put out of business.

While pro-lifers want to see where many of the political battles go – which candidates get elected on which platforms, what legislation, which measures pass in the states – what they are most anxious to see is how many lives the new laws save.

It will be difficult to measure and it may be years before we know anything precisely. But it seems likely that the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. will drop in the wake of Dobbs, even with some mothers traveling to other states or ordering pills over the internet.

There are hints that this is already happening.

Official national data only available through 2020

National numbers, covering abortions in all U.S. states and territories, take years to collect, analyze, and report. The most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Guttmacher Institute, the two basic sources of American abortion data, though published in November of 2022, only updated us through 2020.

Though one (the CDC) shows a slight decrease from 2019 to 2020 while the other (Guttmacher) shows an increase in each of the past three years, both show U.S. abortion numbers up since 2017. Obviously, there is nothing about abortions after 2020 or the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022 decision in Dobbs.

The CDC, which relies of reports from state health departments, reported 620,327 abortions for 2020, but did so missing data from California, the nation’s most populous state, as well as Maryland and New Hampshire.  Guttmacher, which surveys clinics directly and includes the states missed by the CDC, reported 930,160 for the same year. Guttmacher’s numbers are always more accurate and larger.

With COVID still dominating the medical system and many states considering or implementing new legislation in 2021, it is difficult to say whether abortions continued to trend upwards past that point. Time will tell. But until new data arrives, the 2020 state and national figures reported by the CDC and Guttmacher will have to serve as the benchmark against which to measure any new data.

Post Dobbs data from other sources

It is limited, uneven, and sometimes from less-than-ideal sources, but there is some data on abortions after Dobbs.

SFP report

A pro-abortion group of researchers from the Society of Family Planning (SFP) issued a “#We Count Report” on October 28, 2022, based on information obtained from identified abortion “providers” on monthly abortions from April to August of 2022.  They estimate that 79% of all “identified providers” participated in the survey and that this yielded 82% of all abortions performed in the U.S.

According to their research, there were between 5,270 and 5,400 fewer abortions done a month in the U.S. in July and August than there had been in the month of April. This was even taking into account increases seen in states where abortion remained broadly legal after Dobbs.

Whether that trend will continue or expand as states take more legislative actions on abortion is unknown. But if that trend turned out to be real and then continued for the rest of the year, it would mean between 31,950 and 32,400 fewer abortions in 2022 than would have otherwise been expected.

Projected over a full year, that would translate to a reduction of something between 63,900 to 64,800 fewer abortions a year.

The SFP data showed larger drops in some states, particularly those like Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, or Texas where “trigger laws” went into effect protecting most babies or maybe even all.

Data from Texas

Official data from Texas is consistent with SFP estimates.  At this point, there is only data from July following Dobbs, but it does show a steep drop off once the state’s full protections kicked in. After about 3,000 a month from March through May, numbers for June (which included about a week post Dobbs) came in at 2,596. 

But in July, the state only recorded 68 abortions for the whole state.

Only one of these abortions was performed in a hospital for some sort of medical emergency, while the others were generally chemical abortions for non-emergency reasons performed either at an abortion clinic or “ambulatory surgical center.”  

Whether the remaining ones were from rogue abortionists trying to challenge the law or for some other reason, the state report does not make clear. And whether later reports will be amended to show additional abortions the state missed in July remains to be seen. But from what we see here, the drop off appears to have been enormous, with abortions falling 97% in just one month, with Dobbs being the obvious explanation.

Whether Texas proves to be representative is hard to say. Abortion in Texas took a big dive in 2021 too. It dropped from about 5,000 abortions a month from January to August to less than half that in September of 2021 when that state’s “Heartbeat Law” kicked in.  The trigger law protecting unborn children from the point of conception simply took protections the rest of the way once Dobbs came down.

Other states

Other states like Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin also had fully protective legislation go into effect after Dobbs, though some elements were still being challenged in state courts. Most of these saw big drops in the SFP count.

States like Georgia and Idaho, which had Heartbeat-style legislation triggered by Dobbs also saw significant drops in the SFP tallies.

Some of the women simply went to other neighboring states to have abortions, with their travel and abortions sometimes arranged and funded by the abortion industry. But the drop in overall tallies is an indication that many women did not travel and get abortions elsewhere, that they changed plans, stayed home, and decided to have their babies. Multiple stories appearing in the press make clear that, in light of the new laws, many of these moms altered course and determined to give birth.  

Editor’s note. Part two, the conclusion, will run on Monday.