In the year and a half since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, an ocean of coverage has focused on the ruling’s political impact. Lavish attention has been paid to the unbroken winning streak of abortion-rights initiatives on state ballots, to the way Republican candidates are struggling to square their antiabortion convictions with support for abortion among the broader public, and to how the issue might affect the 2024 presidential race.
But what effect has Dobbs had, not on the politics of abortion but on abortion itself?
The answer might come as a surprise: The number of legal abortions in the United States is up.
Even though there is no longer a constitutional right to abortion, and even though abortion has been banned in a number of states, there have been more abortions following the demise of Roe, not fewer. According to the Society for Family Planning, which regularly collects data from abortion practitioners, the average number of abortions rose slightly, from 82,115 per month in the period before Dobbs to 82,298 per month since.
The Guttmacher Institute, which compiles comprehensive empirical data on abortion, concurs. About 465,000 abortions were recorded across all 50 states during the first six months of 2020. But in the first six months of 2023, in just the 36 states where abortion remains readily available, an estimated 511,000 legal abortions were performed. The rise in abortions was especially marked in states bordering those where abortions are banned. The obvious inference is that in tens of thousands of cases, pregnant women are bypassing those bans by simply going to a neighboring state for an abortion. “Many of these states loosened abortion laws,” as The New York Times reported in September, “and providers opened new clinics to serve patients coming from elsewhere.”
Moreover, many abortions don’t require a visit to a clinic. Roughly half of all US abortions today are accomplished via mifepristone, a medication that in many cases can be delivered directly to a patient through the mail. The elaborate website operated by Plan C Pills provides information on how to obtain abortion pills by mail in every state, including those where abortion clinics have closed.
In short, the undoing of Roe v. Wade did not undo the broad availability of abortion in America, contrary to what abortion foes might have hoped, or what abortion-rights supporters might have feared. For all the rhetorical fury unleashed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, the practical impact — like the political impact — has been anything but a pro-life triumph. Roe may be gone, but the culture that Roe engendered remains, by and large, intact.
There are exceptions. In the 14 states where most abortions are now prohibited, women choosing to end their pregnancies have had to travel across a state line or obtain abortion pills online. A small fraction, however, have decided instead to forgo abortion and carry their babies to term.
In a working paper published last month in the Institute of Labor Economics, three economists calculate that in each state where abortion has been banned, there has been an uptick in the number of births. Based on data from the first six months of 2023, they estimate that an additional 32,000 babies will be born per year. That isn’t a huge increase, only about 2.3 percent, and there is no way to know how many of those babies would have been aborted if not for Dobbs. The researchers caution that their data is preliminary. Still, for those who believe that the birth of every baby is a blessing, it seems at least plausible there are now 32,000 more blessings to celebrate in those 14 states than if Roe were still on the books.
To the paper’s coauthors, the upward bump in the number of babies being born in those states is cause for gloom. They suggest that it will “exacerbate economic inequality” and worry that “diminished abortion access poses a risk to the health and financial stability” of low-income women. They appear to attribute the rise in births to women “seeking abortions who were ‘trapped’ by bans and unable to obtain them.”
Maybe. But that’s hardly the only explanation. For some women who would have ended their pregnancy in the pre-Dobbs environment when there was an abortion clinic nearby, the hassle of traveling out-of-state may have been the small nudge they needed to reconsider their decision. Surely at least some of the additional 2 percent of pregnant women who carried their pregnancies to term did so not because they felt trapped but because they had second thoughts about ending the life growing within them. Is that really such a bad thing?