Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study analyzing the way in which a Texas executive order postponing surgical procedures affected abortion in the state. The findings purport to show that the order significantly increased the number of Texas women who obtained second-trimester abortions. Several groups that support legal abortion, including the Guttmacher Institute and the National Abortion Federation, have promoted this study on social media, and the study has been covered by several media outlets.
Properly understanding the study’s findings requires some additional background. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order on March 22, postponing surgeries that were not deemed medically necessary. The governors of Ohio and Alabama issued similar executive orders around the same time. Texas state officials interpreted the executive order to prohibit most abortions until the order expired on April 21. During that timeframe, many abortion facilities in the state filed lawsuits in an attempt to remain open. Nevertheless, the order effectively suspended many abortions in the state.
Most of the media coverage of this subject has focused on the significant increase in second-trimester abortions in May, after the order expired. However, the study indicates that significantly fewer second-trimester abortions took place in Texas during February 2020 and March 2020 than during February and March of the previous year. In fact, when the totals from all the months analyzed in the study are considered, the overall number of second-trimester abortions performed in Texas actually decreased compared to 2019. Some Texas women might have obtained second-trimester abortions in other states, but between February 2020 and May 2020, the study reports that less than 9 percent of abortions performed on Texas women took place in other states. With that in mind, any overall increase in second-trimester abortions in the state likely was considerably lower than media coverage suggests.
Another important finding that has been largely ignored is the fact that the executive order reduced the number of abortions performed on Texas women both in-state and out-of-state. Between March 2020 and May 2020, the number of abortions that Texas women obtained fell by more than 8 percent when compared to in-state estimates from 2019 and out-of-state estimates from 2017. There have been anecdotal reports of an increased demand for abortion in 2020 due to either increased economic pressures or reluctance on the part of some women to carry a pregnancy to term during a pandemic. These new statistics provide some additional insight as to how the pandemic is actually affecting the incidence of abortion.
This new study adds to strong body of academic research suggesting that legal limits on abortion do reduce abortion rates. Indeed, good research has shown that the incidence of abortion tends to be sensitive to its legal status. Unfortunately, the results of such studies typically receive scant attention from the mainstream media.