Measuring the Impact of Dobbs in the Coming Years, Part Three: Will Fewer Abortions Mean More Births?

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

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. A pregnant mother who, as a result of new legislation in her state, decides not to abort her baby will in a matter of months, if nothing goes wrong with the pregnancy, give birth to that child.

It has not been nine full months since Dobbs was handed down, enabling states that wanted to provide full protection for the unborn. But statistically, we know that abortions have dropped in most of those states that did (see Part One), and anecdotally, we have seen many stories of women who responded to those changes by carrying their babies to term.

This is good news, and we can expect more of this in the years to come as these new legal protections bear fruit. But a word of caution is in order. We should not too quickly look to this statistic alone – an increase in birth rates – as the clearest, most direct measure of pro-life success.

Abortions can drop if there are simply less pregnancies in the first place.

Different ways the law affects abortion and birthrates

If a woman is pregnant and her state has or passes a law protecting her unborn child or otherwise legally preventing her from having an abortion in her state, that should eventually mean one less abortion in her state and eventually one more birth (unless she travels to a nearby state and aborts or has abortion pills illegally shipped to her home).

For a woman already pregnant, the law encourages her toward completing the pregnancy. If it has that effect, then over the next nine and half months, logically, one would expect, that there should not only be fewer abortions but a corresponding number of increased births.

Hold that thought.

The law can reduce abortions another way. As long as abortion is legal, women and men can see it serving as a backup should pregnancy occur. If the law changes, though, then that might change their calculations and for some, the risk they are willing to take.

There is already evidence that the new laws have resulted in some of these behavioral changes.

Surge in contraception, vasectomies, sterilizations

On September 1, 2022 Planned Parenthood of New England said it had seen a 20% increase in appointments for birth control over the past three months. This represented the tail end of a 60% jump in requests for contraceptive services that occurred just after the Dobbs ruling (News Center Maine, 9/1/22).

Full data is not available yet, but multiple sources report that Dobbs has been responsible for a significant uptick in vasectomies, the sterilization procedure that surgically snips the tubes providing sperm to the male reproductive organ.  The New York Times (8/12/22) reported that “The weekend after the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, Google reported that searches for “vasectomy” and “are vasectomies reversible?” surged.”

In December, Planned Parenthood’s Northwest affiliate, covering Hawaii, Washington, Idaho, Indiana, and Kentucky, said there had been a 34% increase in vasectomies at its clinics (Fox News, 12/6/22). One vasectomy patient told Politico that Dobbs “made the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy much worse” (12/2/22).

Interest in vasectomies wasn’t the only thing that increased.  Sara Dixon, the public relations manager for Planned Parenthood’s Western Pennsylvania affiliate said that traffic to the national organization’s website seeking information on sterilization increased by 2,205% on the day Roe v. Wade was struck down and remained up by more than 300% through July 21 (Pittsburgh City Paper 11/9/22)

The wisdom or necessity of these measures may be debatable, but their significance is rather straightforward: if either one or both of the partners is incapable of supplying a functioning gamete, pregnancy cannot occur.  And without the possibility of conception, there cannot be an abortion.

Statistical impact

How much of this sudden surge of interest in sterilization was panic buying or overreaction will only be known when actual numbers on procedures and sales come out in the coming months and years. But a couple of things are clear from even this limited data.

First, that a large segment of the population has come to rely on abortion as a backup means of birth control.  As long as abortion was available, many couples chose not to alter their behavior.  Now, with “access” limited in some areas of the country, they are reassessing.  Some may reconsider marriage or abstinence. Others may decide they do not wish to change the level of their sexual activity, but feel they now need to take measures to ensure that no pregnancies occur.

Second, one of the consequences of Dobbs may well be fewer babies. Whether or not this is due to less sexual activity overall (one possibility) or increased numbers of sterilizations in the population (or wider use of contraception), the practical results may be that pairings between people functionally capable of producing offspring may drop off.

These factors matter to statisticians and anyone trying to track the impact of protective legislation because it would mean not only the possibility that women formerly intending to abort might instead give birth to children, dropping abortions and increasing birth rates, but also that things may happen so that the number of pregnancies overall may decline. Thus there would be both fewer abortions and fewer pregnancies or births.

Both abortions and birth rates could go down.

In all likelihood, some of both will probably happen. Some women who become pregnant will, in light of the new legal circumstances, go on to give birth. But others will take measures to ensure that they do not become pregnant in the first place, using birth control, enduring sterilization procedures, or adopting a more abstinent lifestyle.

Birth rates may tick up some. But the most dramatic feature is likely to be a big drop in the number of abortions with tens of thousands less babies dying than was the case before Dobbs.