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How Accurate is the “We Count” Study by the Society for Family Planning that show Abortion Increases Since Dobbs?

by | Nov 1, 2023

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

In publishing data on abortions performed before and after Dobbs, the Society for Family Planning (SFP) has offered an answer to a question folks on both sides of the issue are anxious to resolve – has abortion returned to the levels we once had under Roe?

In what is now its fourth installment since the June 24, 2022 Dobbs decision, SFP says in its latest “We Count” report that there are actually more abortions being performed in the U.S. than there were in the months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June of 2022.

But is this accurate? 

What of the large drop offs seen in many states after they revived or passed legal protections for unborn children?  Is there solid evidence that pregnant women simply traveled and got their abortions in other states where there were no limits? What about abortion pills mailed from out of state?

There is reason to believe that abortions did in fact drop in many states once pro-life protections were put in place, and that many children were spared the abortionist’s knife or his deadly pills.  Some women clearly did leave their home states and got abortions elsewhere, but maybe not as many as SFP claims.

The abortion industry is defying state laws and shipping abortion pills to states where they are not legal. But how big a role this plays–how much of this is the industry’s self-promotion and how much is a troubling new trend with the FDA just starting to authorize pharmacy and mail distribution–is difficult to determine.

SFP says abortions down in states protecting the unborn, and it is likely they’re right.

In every count SFP has taken since Dobbs, providers report huge drop offs in the number of abortions in states that passed or revived protections for unborn children.  

According to SFP, there were 94,930 fewer abortions in June of 2023 than April and May of 2022 in states that “banned” abortions.  Though the precise date that their “bans” went into effect varied by states and legal circumstances, the states SFP puts in this category are Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

There were another 19,660 fewer abortions during that same time frame in states that instituted “gestational bans” (limiting abortion to six weeks by something like a “heartbeat law”).  States SFP includes here are Ohio, South Carolina, and Georgia, though state court cases temporarily sidelined that legislation in the first two after a couple of months.

But all told, SFP reports that there were 114,590 fewer abortions in the twelve months following Dobbs than there would have been if trends had continued as they were before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

This was ostensibly based on counts from SFP members sending in reports of the number of abortions they performed for the months just prior and the months that followed Dobbs, with estimates for clinics or abortionists that didn’t report or weren’t SFP members.

Of course, SFP members in those states with active protections for the unborn are going to report performing no abortions there, since to do otherwise would be publicly admitting to breaking the law, but that probably reflects the reality because violations would shut those clinics down.

This does not mean that those clinics have given up on selling abortion.  Many of these clinics have openly admitted to arranging travel for women to have abortions in other states, and even funding their trips. So even if not performing abortions, they may still be promoting them.

More on that momentarily.

Evidence of increased births

It is still clear, from this report and from data obtained elsewhere, that some pregnant women, potential abortion candidates, chose not to travel, but decided to remain in their home states and have their babies. 

We have written elsewhere about how there were thousands more births in 2014 and 2015 after Texas passed protective legislation and many abortion clinics closed in that state (Human Life Review, Fall 2021, found here).

Information published by the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a “Research Letter” appearing in the June 29, 2023 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) both show that protective legislation in Texas didn’t just reduce abortions but also boosted births there. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that while births barely budged in the U.S. from 2021 to 2022, data show births in Texas increased by 4.3% in 2022, the year following that state’s enforcement of their newly passed Heartbeat Act.

Full birth data from other states with protective legislation post-Dobbs is still a year or so away. But the evidence available from areas which have already put such protections in place show that large numbers of pregnant women responded by bearing and keeping their babies.

Traveling out of state for abortions

SFP strongly asserts that many of the women “denied” abortions in their home states simply traveled to a neighboring state and got their abortions there. And they attempt to offer data to make their point.

While abortions were dropping in states with protective legislation, their data show they were increasing in states which “permitted” (or more accurately, promoted) abortion, to the point that abortions there more than made up for the drop in other states. Between April and May of 2021 and June of 2023, SFP says the number of abortions in “permitted” states rose by 116,790, just over two thousand more than they dropped in the ‘banning” states.

The intended message here is clear. As lawyer Mary Ziegler put it in an October 26, 2023 opinion piece on MSNBC.com, the study “is a stunning indictment of the inefficacy and unintended consequences of criminal bans that we now know abortions are becoming more common in the post-Dobbs era despite these hurdles.”

What conclusions might we draw from this data? The data does appear to show that some of the largest increases occurred in those permissive states that border those with protective legislation. SFP says abortions rose 45.4% in Illinois, 40.5% in Colorado, 47.3% in Minnesota, 40.5% in New Mexico, and 72.2% in Kansas, while west coast states saw increases of 12.5% in Washington State, 33.3% in Oregon, and 11.2% in California.

What is important to note about some of these states is that they were not just states bordering on states which recently passed protective legislation. They often were actively recruiting traveling aborting patients (e.g., California’s Governor buying ads in several states and putting up billboards in Texas – CNN, 9/13/23 and Politico, 9/15/23). And national abortion groups were  promoting mobile abortion and large mega-clinics – some built very recently for this purpose – to handle out of state traffic.

Planned Parenthood has built many of these border mega-clinics and explicitly turned some of its staffers into travel agents, helping arrange travel and funding for women to visit some of the group’s clinics in neighboring states. (Some of Planned Parenthood’s activities in this regard discussed here.)

Some of the abortions “lost” from states with protections for the unborn have been made up for in neighboring states by these “travel agents” tapping into special abortion funds to pay for abortions and abortion travel. But it is important to note that these funds are drying up and some are beginning to wonder if this model is sustainable in the long term (Andrea González-Ramírez, The Cut, 10/24/23)

Some may be surprised to see states like Florida (abortion up 48.2% in the year since Dobbs), South Carolina (up 34.8%) and North Carolina (up 44.6%) on this list of border states with large increases. But remember that while these states passed protective legislation, courts and the legislative process held up these laws going into effect, making them travel destinations for abortion minded women in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Some important caveats to the SFP abortion counts

But did all of those women from protective states simply travel and get their abortions in other abortion-friendly states?  Some clearly did, but there is reason to think that SFP may have overestimated and oversold its data.

It helps to remember that SFP is not some neutral medical group but something more akin to a trade association, and one with a strong pro-abortion agenda.  As such, it helps to read these “We Count” reports not as objective scientific studies, but something more like a sales report, with presenters spinning the data in the most favorable light for shareholders. 

The data they collect, and the data they present is what serves the larger narrative. The message the industry has decided to push with this latest report is that “your laws won’t stop us, we’ll get abortions anyway, you’re not saving any babies, just making it harder on the poor, pregnant women in your state.”

Available data does show more births, though.  And some of this data on increases in border states is a bit “iffy.”

Despite the claim to have data from more than 80% of the nation’s abortion providers (their members) and 100% participation of clinics from 26 states, the SFP counts also depended in many instances on data extrapolated from reporting members for data for clinics and “providers” who did not report.

SFP says that numbers from several states were “corrected for missingness with imputation.” Interestingly enough, those states were some of those with the highest increases in numbers of abortions.

“Imputed” numbers of abortions were responsible for 5-14% of the totals in Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, and New Mexico, 15-29% of the abortions in North Carolina, 30-44% in the state of New Jersey, and finally, more than 45% in the state of Florida, which supposedly saw some of the biggest increases.

Under the circumstances, it is not inconceivable that some of these numbers could have been inflated or at least overestimated for the sake of the larger narrative.

Or maybe not. Maybe both births and abortions increased for a while. Time will tell.

Unanswered questions about chemical abortions

Though the “We Count” study did include chemical abortions in its count, it only counted those reported/facilitated by its membership in states where chemical abortions were legal.  SFP had no way of counting those shipped by foreign pharmacies or ordered online from rogue abortion pill promoters selling pills for do-it-yourself (DIY) abortions.

Due to heavy promotion, there have likely been several thousand of these, but probably not enough at this point to make up for the “lost” or “missing abortions” in states with  protections for the unborn.

But going forward, it is going to be hard to track these numbers, and that is true for everyone concerned.  Even promoters of these pills can really only relate sales figures, rather than hard data on outcomes, since the pills could fail, women could change their minds, or they could save the pills for later.

Sad to say, but the only hint of how prevalent these DIY abortion are might be in increased admissions to Emergency Rooms as women hemorrhage, present for “miscarriage,” or show up with ruptured ectopic pregnancies that were missed because no one did an ultrasound.

Summing up the numbers

Before giving the “We Count” report more weight than it can bear, remember that we are only a couple of months out from Dobbs and that it may take a while longer for things to fully sort out.

Abortion advocates are currently spending like crazy to fund abortion travel and keep the abortion industry humming. This sort of spending may not be sustainable.

Many state policies are still in flux, people are finding out what their laws do and don’t cover, many are coming to terms with what it means to live in a world where “abortion on demand” is no longer a legal absolute.

Thoughts and behaviors will continue to adjust and change.

Even taking SFP’s “We Count” data at face value, there is reason to believe that there is good news just around the corner.

When and if better protections come online in Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, abortions will likely drop there and any abortion-minded pregnant women traveling in the South will have a lot farther to go, making it more likely she stays home and has the child.

That’s the real bottom line. And that’s what counts most of all.

Categories: Abortion
Tags: abortion