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After Dobbs: Abortion in America by the numbers

Demonstrators at a pro-abortion rally June 28 in Denver, Colorado. Credit: JD Flynn/The Pillar.

After last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens’ Health Organization, America enters a new era. After forty-nine years, the availability of abortion will depend more on the actions of the country’s millions of voters than its nine Supreme Court justices.

But what is the lay of the land in post-Roe America, and how much will Dobbs do to reduce the total number of abortions? The Pillar looks at the numbers, nationally and state by state.

Two weeks before the release of Dobbs, the Guttmacher Institute  - the research arm of Planned Parenthood - released its latest study on the frequency of abortion in America.

These studies are widely cited by researchers because they use more comprehensive data than the CDC tracking of abortions. The latest release, covering 2017 to 2020, showed that the abortion rate had increased in 2019 and 2020 to level above the historic low of 13.5 abortion per 1,000 women of reproductive age which the study found in 2017.

While there have been slight increases before, the size of this increase, and its persistence through two years - 2019 and 2020 - is concerning. In general, the trend in the U.S. has been towards lower abortion rates since 1980.

The abortion rate in 2020 rate is still fairly low by historical standards: It is lower than the 16.3 rate in 1973 when Roe legalized abortion, and lower than the level just six years ago in 2014, but will be a point of concern for pro-life advocates to see trends moving in this direction.

The largest increases were in mostly in states that already had above average abortion rates:

New York increased from 26.3 in 2017 to 28.8 in 2020 — following the passage of the country’s most expansive state abortion law in 2019.

Illinois increased from 16.6 to 21.3, an increase driven both by state funding for abortions through Medicaid (something which Illinois has provided since January 2018) and also people crossing from other states into Illinois for abortions, particularly Missouri, where the abortion rate fell from 4.0 to 0.1.

Other significant increases in abortion rate were in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Michigan, and the District of Columbia.

Abortion rate per 1,000 women.

Gallup also released new polling related to abortion shortly before the Dobbs decision was released.

Gallup’s polling is particularly valuable because interviews were conducted after the May leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion — if there was an effect on public opinion due to the imminent prospect of Roe being overturned by the Supreme Court, we can see the results here.

Gallup found that highest percentage of Americans since 1995, 55%, described themselves as “pro-choice” in the 2022 poll.

But when broken down by political party, the results seem to show a slightly different reality. The percentage of Republicans and independents who identify themselves as “pro-choice” remains virtually unchanged in 2022 compared to 2021. The radical change is among Democrats.

In 2021, 70% of Democrats described themselves as “pro-choice,” but in 2022 that percentage jumped to 88%.

The shift marks the completion of a process of polarization on the abortion issue which has taken place over the last twenty-five years. In 1995, 58% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans (as well as 53% of independents)  described themselves as “pro-choice.”  At that time, 51% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats described themselves as “pro-life.”

Over the following years people increasingly switched parties or conformed their abortion beliefs to those of their partisan affiliation. As of 2020, 70% of Republicans described themselves as pro-life and 88% of Democrats described themselves as pro-choice.

In one sense, this polarization may have helped drive political success for the pro-life movement in recent years, with Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices responsible for overturning Roe, and Republican-dominated state legislatures producing laws to limit abortion in their states and drive cases to the court, including the Mississippi abortion law which was upheld in the Dobbs ruling.

However, this polarization also sets a potential ceiling to pro-life political success. In a post-Roe world, abortion will increasingly be concentrated in a small number of large states with Democrat-dominated politics and very pro-abortion laws.

The Pillar takes you past the headlines, breaking down the numbers that are the real story. Help us keep bringing you serious, data driven journalism.

Two Americas

Contrary to some rhetoric, the Dobbs decision does not, in and of itself, make any ruling on the legality of abortion in the United States. Rather, it returns regulation of abortion to the states. And among the states, the legal situation varies considerably.

However, when it comes to abortion, not all states are equal in their impact. Looking at the fifty states plus the District of Columbia, fifteen have bans that come into effect now that Roe is no longer operative. (Wisconsin, a sixteenth, has a pre-Roe ban on the books but its Democratic governor and Attorney General have announced they will not enforce the law, making its status uncertain.)

However, of these fifteen states, only two had more than ten thousand abortions in 2020: Texas and Tennessee. These fifteen states in which abortion will be effectively prohibited accounted for only 12% of abortions performed in 2020.

Five states have significant restrictions on abortion which will not be in effect. Ohio, Georgia, and South Carolina have bans on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy which will now take effect.

Arizona and Florida have restrictions on abortions after fifteen weeks. Together, these five states accounted for 17% of US abortions in 2020. However, a fifteen week ban will actually affect very few abortions: 96% of abortions occur before the end of the fifteenth week of pregnancy.

In another ten states, the fate of abortion restrictions remains uncertain.

It’s likely that Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, and Nebraska will pass fairly substantial abortion restrictions. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are unlikely to substantially restrict abortion in the near term. North Carolina also remains uncertain and Wisconsin’s executive branch is declining to enforce the laws they have.

Other states already legally protect abortion up to viability, or even to the point of birth. Some of these states have proactively expanded their abortion protections in recent years with an eye towards becoming abortion “sanctuaries” in a post-Roe world.

In 2020, 56% of all US abortions occurred in states which provide full legal protection for abortion post-Roe.

Making the best possible estimate of which states will likely have severe restrictions on abortion a year from now, it’s likely that around 23 states will do so. But those states would account for only 22% of the total abortions performed in 2020.

And it cannot be assumed that all of those 22% of abortions would necessarily be avoided by new restrictions — as we saw from the example of Missouri residents traveling to abortion providers in Illinois, a number of people will cross state lines in order to procure abortions.

There will also be significant efforts to provide “mail order” abortion service to residents of states banning abortion, offering the chemical-based abortion regimen which is already used in over 40% of abortions tracked by Guttmacher (as opposed to the surgical-type abortions which have historically been more common in abortion clinics.)

All together, the estimates made both by abortion supporters and opponents suggesting that overturning Roe may only reduce abortions by 10%-12% seem fairly accurate.

Conclusions

The end of Roe v. Wade is a significant moment, both legally and morally in U.S. history.

Yet, in terms of preserving the lives of unborn children in the United States, there remains much work to do. A great deal of this work will have to be done in states which are dominated by the Democratic Party, 88% of whose members now describe themselves as “pro-choice”.

If the Church is to be able to protect the unborn, it will have to find ways to be heard, even by those who have shown themselves opposed to the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.

This will require creative approaches and an ability to show mothers in need that life is the better path, indeed that it is even a possible path. Most certainly, the Church will need to foster open minds and new allies as it seeks to protect life in all times and places.

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