Fifty Years of Abortion in America

Abortion Statistics Before and After Dobbs

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

Before Dobbs, there was one critical benchmark in U.S. abortion history – January 22nd, 1973, the date Roe v. Wade was decided, legalizing abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Everything was measured from that point forward.

Now, with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe, rejecting the idea that there is any national right to abortion, there is a new benchmark – June 24, 2022. That was the point at which many states were once again able to pass and enforce legislation protecting unborn children.

After Roe, Before Dobbs

Under Roe, measuring abortion and its effects was never easy or precise, owing to the secrecy often surrounding the “procedure” and the general presence of its practitioners outside the medical mainstream. But the task was relatively straightforward – simply report the numbers of abortion and the characteristics of the patients and “providers.”  

Two entities, one public, one private, regularly counted national abortions in the U.S. – the government, using the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and an independent abortion industry offshoot, the Guttmacher Institute, which was at one time a special research affiliate of abortion giant Planned Parenthood.

Guttmacher relied on occasional surveys from abortion clinics or other “providers,” generally obtaining higher and what were believed to be more accurate estimates. The CDC relied on yearly reports from state health departments which varied in quality and completeness but had the advantage of being published more frequently and in a standardized format that allowed for better measuring trends and making comparisons. 

Still, some abortionists did not report their abortions to government officials in some states, and some states did not report their numbers to the CDC. Inevitably this made the CDC numbers lower and their data more incomplete.

Recorded history

What both sources showed were abortion numbers and rates skyrocketing after Roe, reaching a million a year in just a few years time (by 1975 for Guttmacher, 1977 for the CDC). Guttmacher showed abortion hitting a peak of just over 1.6 million in 1990, but dropping from that point on as different pro-life laws like parental involvement, right to know, fetal pain, funding limitations, partial birth abortion bans, etc. took effect.

Abortion numbers, rates, and ratios fell over the next 25 years, reaching lows in 2016 and 2017 not seen since the first full year of Roe. From that point on, though, they began to rise again, largely owing to the proliferation of abortion pills. The abortion will was first approved in September of 2000 but has grown to comprise 53% of all abortions by 2020.

That is generally where things stood in 2022 when the Supreme Court announced its Dobbs decision overturning the forty-nine year old Roe precedent. Abortions had fallen their lowest levels since Roe in many states and then largely stabilized. Many states showed only small changes or newly growing numbers fueled by the broad availability and promotion of chemical abortifacients.

Dobbs impacts the abortion industry

When Dobbs came at long last, it returned  the issue of abortion’s legality to the states, to the people, and to their representatives. Measuring the numbers of abortions became more complicated

Guttmacher and the CDC, used to having years to collect and publish their data, simply have not had the time to conduct their usual surveys and collate the data they typically use for their regular reports. The CDC’s last official abortion surveillance was for 2021. Guttmacher last full national survey covered 2020.

There are also new circumstances and factors that have made it difficult for these traditional counters to produce the sorts of comprehensive data they have published in the past. 

New circumstances, new challenges

Many of the “providers” that Guttmacher or the government relied upon for their counts either moved, closed, or lingered in some sort of legal limbo while the legislature or state courts worked out what would be the governing policy.  How informative or forthcoming they might be under the circumstances is a legitimate question.

Clinics unable to perform abortions in some states have partnered with affiliated clinics in other states that do allow or promote abortions to refer or send clients to have their abortions performed there. Reductions in numbers of abortions in one state may thus be (partly) matched by increases in neighboring states, with some states better tracking out of state abortions than others.

New policies put in place by the pro-abortion Biden administration allowing abortion pills to be sold and shipped to women’s homes without any required physical exam or office visit encouraged the formation of many online abortion pill entrepreneurs and  distributors. Showing little concern for women’s health and sometimes even less regard for the laws governing abortion in particular states, some of these entities even brazenly shipped these dangerous pills in unmarked packages to customers residing in states where the sales and use of such pills was illegal.

Determining how to get an accurate count of these “Do-It-Yourself” chemical abortions from online pills is a real challenge. Promoters of these pills tout their sales figures, but these include some “preemptive” sales, where customers take the advice to stock up on these pills for “emergencies,” and others who may buy the pills and never use them.

Measuring by other means

One trade association of providers, the Society of Family Planning (SFP), decided to send out monthly surveys of its membership once word leaked of the Dobbs decision and its anticipated legal consequences a few months ahead of its official release. Though some of its methods and estimates are questionable, they do appear to show an immediate drop off in states where unborn children were protected after June 2022.

The SFP “We Count” report also showed some increases in abortion friendly states in the second half of 2022, but not enough to make up for decreases seen in states protecting unborn children. Monthly reports from 2023 on, however, showed out-of-state abortion travelers making up much of the difference, but the projections for many of these states contained a great deal of conjecture.

Guttmacher followed SFP’s lead and began performing and publishing its own monthly surveys in 2023. For the most part, their numbers tracked those of the SFP, but were generally a bit higher. Guttmacher did not report numbers from states where there were legal protections in place for unborn children. It doesn’t have the most recent immediately pre and post Dobbs numbers from those states to offer useable comparisons.

Independently of all those efforts, a group of U.S. economists published a study in the IZA Institute of Labor Economics (IZA DP No. 16608, November 2023), looking at births occurring in the first six months of 2023 in those states with abortion policies most directly impacted by Dobbs. They say they have found 32,000 additional births as a result of changing abortion policies in those states.

Even if a certain number of women traveled to other states for abortions or even had abortion pills shipped to their homes, this would not cause births to increase. Clearly this indicates these are abortions averted and lives saved.

Calculating a cumulative count

Until the CDC and Guttmacher are able to conduct their own national surveys or complete their own counts, the best estimate of annual and cumulative abortions will probably have to involve an amalgam of the best available sources and most reasonable assumptions. This is complicated but please stay with me.

We know that the CDC’s 2021 abortion number is too low, missing data from California, New Hampshire, Maryland and New Jersey. But we recognize that the larger trends that it shows are generally sound. We then applied the 5% increase the CDC found from 2020 to 2021 and applied it to the most recent published figure from Guttmacher, which as 930,160 for 2020.

That gave us 976,668 abortions for 2021.

To arrive at a national figure for 2022, we used that 2021 number we generated above (976,688) and subtracted the number of cumulative fewer abortions SFP saw in the U.S. in its national monthly totals for the rest of the year after Dobbs.   This takes into account both the drops in states with some form of protection for unborn children as well as increases in states allowing or encouraging abortions, including those for women from other states.

Reports from SFP show that even with all these factors considered, there were 25,050 fewer abortions overall from July to December of 2022 than there would have been without Dobbs –that is, compared to trends seen in the months before Dobbs. Subtract those from the figure we generated for 2021 and it yields a figure of 951,618 for 2022.

To come up with a figure for 2023, we considered the trends that were in place before Dobbs, before the pandemic that would have continued in states where abortion was still legal and applied that to our figure for 2022. Then we reduced that by the number of lives national birth data show to have been saved.

Instead of repeating the unusual jump of 5% the CDC found in 2021, a year dominated by COVID, we assumed that abortion trends continued upwards as before, and we adjusted the 2022 by 2.6% (the average yearly increase seen by Guttmacher 2017-2020). Applied to our new 951,618 estimate given for 2022, this would have given us a figure of 976,360 for 2023.  

We took 64,000 from that figure, though, because of the 32,000 additional births U.S. economists saw in the first six months of 2023 as a result of Dobbs (we multiplied the economists’ six month figure by two to account for the full year).

Subtracting that the inflated original estimate of 976,360 gives an estimate of 912,360 abortions for 2023.

Taken together will numbers developed from previous Guttmacher yearly counts, National Right to Life estimates that there have been 65,464,760 abortions performed in the U.S. since 1973.

The bottom line

It is an astounding figure, to be sure. But the data shows that our efforts both before and after Dobbs have had real effect. Numbers of abortions in the U.S. have dropped 43% from their all time high, even with population increases. Abortion rates and ratios are back to levels not seen since the first days of Roe.

There’s obviously still a long way to go to restore full protection to the unborn in America. But millions of lives have already been saved, and tens of thousands more since Dobbs.

Keep fighting for life. Our cause is just and our efforts effective.