What science tells us about abortion bans

Abortion has been part of American health care for centuries.
close up of a woman holding a positive pregnancy test
Here's what to know about the science and history of US abortion bans and access. Deposit Photos

On Monday, Politico published a leaked initial draft majority opinion penned by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that represents “a full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights and a subsequent 1992 decision—Planned Parenthood v. Casey—that largely maintained the right.” While a draft majority opinion is subject to change, the leak has many Americans wondering whether Roe v. Wade will be overturned in the months to come. There are currently 13 states across the US that have enacted “trigger laws” designed to instantly outlaw abortion should such a decision come through. 

In recent years, abortion access has become an increasingly partisan issue. Research shows that this link between our opinions and our group affiliations makes it even more difficult for us to change our minds, even in the face of good evidence

But when it comes to hard facts and measurable data, abortion bans are not an effective way of making abortions less common. Meanwhile, a lack of access has a serious impact on human health and wellbeing. Here are some points to keep in mind as you consider this debate. 

Abortion rates are already declining 

According to the most recent data available, abortion rates have been dropping steadily since 1980. Statistical analysis suggests this is not due to state-by-state restrictions on abortion, which have had a relatively recent uptick, but rather due to a decrease in unintended pregnancies. Abortions are going down, but births aren’t going up. You can see a deeper dive on that data here

Banning abortions isn’t the best way to stop abortions 

Research shows that the most effective way to lower the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies is to increase easy access to effective contraception. Some countries, like several in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the most restrictive abortion laws also have higher abortion rates, likely because people there lack access to reproductive healthcare. One US study found that abortion rates can drop by more than 70 percent when free birth control is available. In many of the states looking to outlaw abortion, birth control is also difficult to access

Because there is so little data on abortion during the time when it was illegal in the US, it’s difficult to say whether easy access to abortion made people more likely to terminate pregnancies. Illegal abortions and related maternal deaths seem to have dropped dramatically in the US, but birth rates did also drop initially. Still, research on other countries suggests more liberal abortion laws do not lead to more abortions. Meanwhile, analysis from the years just before and after Roe v. Wade suggests that if abortion is possible somewhere, people with the desire and means to access it will do so—even if that requires crossing state lines. Limiting abortion access in some states will primarily effect the health and welbeing of young, poor people of color

Abortion access improves health outcomes 

In 2018, a landmark report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that the four major methods of abortion used in the US are safe. This includes medical abortions, which rely on oral medication a patient can take in their own home. In fact, the report warned that common restrictions such as waiting periods only serve to make a very safe procedure riskier; terminating a pregnancy is simplest when it’s done as early as possible.

Carrying a pregnancy to term is much more dangerous than terminating, and unintended pregnancies may be even riskier

Meanwhile, many studies demonstrate that people who want abortions and can access them are both healthier and more financially stable than those who seek to terminate but are not able to—and these disparities can be seen even years later. Economists have demonstrated that, without a marked increase in the social and financial support provided for new parents in the US, a lack of abortion access will inevitably hurt the career prospects and financial independance of people who can get pregnant. Poverty increases many health risks

Abortion is not new

Abortion has not always been considered a political issue, or even a religious one. Positive and neutral references to pregnancy termination date back thousands of years. And in early-American history, early abortion was a common form of birth control. The push to outlaw the practice only began in the mid-1800s. While the American Medical Association now supports the right to safe abortion access, the organization once helped push such procedures into back alleys. Many historians now suggest that the fight to criminalize abortion had more to do with demonizing midwives and would-be female physicians in favor of the rising class of male gynecologists and obstetricians, who framed the common practice as barbaric.