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Why Didn’t Abortions Drop Nationally After Dobbs?

Why Didn’t Abortions Drop Nationally After Dobbs?

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Diana Greene Foster made a painful prediction: She estimated that one in four women who wanted an abortion wouldn’t be able to get one. Foster, a demographer at UC San Francisco, told me that she’d based her expectation on her knowledge of how abortion rates decline when women lose insurance coverage or have to travel long distances after clinics close.

And she was well aware of what this statistic meant. She’d spent 10 years following 1,000 women recruited from clinic waiting rooms. Some got an abortion, but others were turned away. The “turnaways” were more likely to suffer serious health consequences, live in poverty, and stay in contact with violent partners. With nearly 1 million abortions performed in America each year, Foster worried that hundreds of thousands of women would be forced to continue unwanted pregnancies. “Having a baby before they’re ready kind of knocks people off their life course,” she told me.

But now, more than a year removed from the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Foster has revised her estimate. After seeing early reports of women traveling across state lines and ordering pills online, she now estimates that about 5 percent of women who want an abortion cannot get one. Indeed, two recent reports show that although Dobbs upended abortion access in America, many women have nevertheless found ways to end their pregnancy. A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, signals that national abortion rates have not meaningfully fallen since 2020. Instead, they seem to have gone up a bit. A report released this week by the Society of Family Planning, another pro-abortion-rights group, shows that an increase in abortions in states that allow the procedure more than offset the post-Dobbs drop-off in states that closed down clinics.

Some of this increase may be a result of trends that predate Dobbs: Abortion rates in the U.S. have been going up since 2017. But the reports suggest that the increase may also be due to travel by women who live in red states and the expanded access to abortion that many blue states enacted after the ruling. Still, it is not yet clear exactly how much each of these factors is contributing to the observed increase—and how many women who want an abortion are still unable to get one.

Alison Norris, a co-chair of the Society of Family Planning study, told me that she fears that the public will “become complacent” if they see the likely increase in abortion rates and believe that everyone has access. “Feeling like the problem isn’t really that big of a deal because the numbers seem to have returned to what they were pre-Dobbs is a misunderstanding of the data,” she said.

It seems illogical that more than a dozen states would ban abortion and national rates would hardly change. But even as red states have choked off access, blue states have widened it. And the data show that women have flooded the remaining clinics and ordered abortion pills from pharmacies that ship across the country. More than half of all abortions are done using medication, a pattern that began even before the Dobbs decision.

“It just doesn’t work to make abortion illegal,” Linda Prine, a doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, told me. “There may be some people who are having babies that they didn’t want to have, but when you shift resources all over the place, and all kinds of other avenues open up, there’s also people who are getting abortions that might not have gotten them otherwise.”

With mail-order abortion pills, “it’s this weird moment where abortion might, ironically, be more available than it’s ever been,” Rachel Rebouché, an expert in abortion law and the dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, told me.

The Guttmacher Institute sampled abortion clinics to estimate the change in abortion counts between the first halves of 2020 and 2023. Areas surrounding states with post-Roe bans saw their abortion numbers surge over that period of time. In Colorado, which is near South Dakota, a state with a ban, abortions increased by about 89 percent, compared with an 8 percent rise in the prior three-year period. New Mexico saw abortions climb by 220 percent. (For comparison, before Dobbs, the state recorded a 27 percent hike from 2017 to 2020.) Even states in solidly blue regions saw their abortion rates grow over the three-year interval from 2020 to 2023: Guttmacher estimates that California’s abortion clinics provided 16 percent more abortions, and New York’s about 18 percent more.

Some shifts predated the court’s intervention. After a decades-long decline, abortions began ticking upward around 2017. In 2020, they increased by 8 percent compared with 2017. The researchers I spoke with for this story told me that they couldn’t point to a decisive cause for the shift that started six years ago; they suggested rising child-care costs and Trump-era cuts to Medicaid coverage as possible factors. But the rise in abortion rates reflects a broader change: Women seem to want fewer children than they used to. Caitlin Myers, a professor at Middlebury College, told me that abortion rates might have increased even more if the Court hadn’t reversed Roe. “It looks like more people just want abortions than did a few years ago,” she said. “What we don’t know is, would they have gone up even more if there weren’t people trapped in Texas or Louisiana?”

One of the most significant factors in maintaining post-Roe abortion access dates from the latter half of 2021. As the coronavirus pandemic clobbered the health-care system, the FDA suspended its requirement that women pick up abortion medications in person. A few months later, it made the switch permanent. The timing was opportune: People became accustomed to receiving all of their medical care through virtual appointments at the same time that they could get abortion pills delivered to their doorstep, Rebouché told me. People no longer have to travel to a clinic and cross anti-abortion picket lines. But access to mifepristone, one of the most commonly used drugs for medication abortions, is under threat. After an anti-abortion group challenged the FDA’s approval of the drug, a federal court instated regulations that would require women to visit a doctor three times to get the pills, making access much more difficult. The Supreme Court is weighing whether to hear an appeal, and has frozen the 2021 rules in place while it decides.

But paradoxically, several of the factors that may have contributed to the rise in abortion rates seem to have sprung directly from the Dobbs decision. In the year since the ruling, six blue states have enacted laws that allow practitioners to ship abortion pills anywhere, even to deep-red Texas. Although these laws haven’t yet been litigated to test whether they’re truly impenetrable, doctors have relied on them to mail medication across the country. Aid Access, an online service that operates outside the formal health-care system, receives requests for about 6,500 abortion pills a month. (The pills cost $150, but Aid Access sends them for free to people who can’t pay.) Demand for Aid Access pills in states that ban or restrict medication abortion has mushroomed since the Dobbs decision, rising from an average of about 82 requests per day before Dobbs to 214 after. The Guttmacher report doesn’t count abortions that take place in this legally fuzzy space, suggesting that actual abortion figures could be higher.

As the Supreme Court revoked the constitutional right to an abortion and turned the issue back to the states, it also hardened the resolve of abortion-rights supporters. In the five months after Roe fell, the National Network of Abortion Funds received four times the money from donations than it got in all of 2020. People often donate as states encroach on abortion rights. In many cases, they bankrolled people’s travel out of ban states. Community networks also gained experience in shuttling people out of state to get abortions. “There’s definitely been innovation in the face of abortion bans,” Abigail Aiken, who documents abortions that occur outside of the formal health-care system, told me.

Some researchers believe that the Dobbs decision has actually convinced more women to get abortions. Abortion-rights advocacy groups have erected highway billboards that promise Abortion is ok. Public opinion has tilted in favor of abortion rights. Ushma Upadhyay, a professor at UC San Francisco, told me that California’s rising abortion rates cannot all be due to people traveling from states that ban abortion. “It’s also got to be an increase among Californians,” she said. “It’s just a lot of attention, destigmatization, and funding that has been made available. Even before Dobbs, there was a lot of unmet need for abortion in this country.”

Abortion used to be a topic that was “talked about in the shadows,” Greer Donley, an expert in abortion law and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told me. “Dobbs kind of blew that up.” Still, she believes that it’s unlikely that people are getting significantly more abortions simply because of changes within blue states. Just as obstacles don’t seem to have stopped people from seeking abortions, efforts that moderately expand access are unlikely to lead people to get an abortion, she said.

The people I spoke with emphasized that even though overall abortion rates might be going up, not everyone who wants the procedure can get it. People who don’t speak English or Spanish, who don’t have internet access, or who are in jail still have trouble getting abortions. “What I foresee is a bunch of Black women being stuck pregnant who didn’t want to be pregnant, in a state where it’s incredibly dangerous to be Black and pregnant,” Laurie Bertram Roberts, a founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, told me.

Bertram Roberts’s fund used to provide travel stipends of up to $250. Now women need three times that. Most people travel from Mississippi to a clinic in Carbondale, Illinois. The trip takes two days—48 hours that women must take off work and find child care for. “If you are in the middle of Texas, and you have to travel to Illinois, even if funds covered all the costs, to say that abortion is more accessible for that person seems callous and wrong,” Donley told me.

Many women spend weeks waiting for an abortion. “It is excruciating to be carrying a pregnancy that one knows they’re planning to end,” Upadhyay said. And although studies show that abortion pills are safe, women who take them can bleed for up to three weeks, and they may worry that they’ll be prosecuted if they seek help at a hospital. Only two states—Nevada and South Carolina—explicitly criminalize women who give themselves an abortion (and few women have been charged under the laws), but the legislation contributes to a climate of fear.

More than a year out from the Dobbs decision, the grainy picture of abortion access is coming into focus. With the benefit of distance, the story seems not to be solely one of diminished access, widespread surveillance, and forced births, as the ruling’s opponents had warned. For most Americans, abortion might be more accessible than it’s ever been. But for another, more vulnerable group, abortion is a far-off privilege. “If I lived in my birth state—I was born in Minnesota—my work would be one hundred times easier,” Bertram Roberts told me, later adding, “I think about that a lot, about how the two states that bookend my life are so different.”

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