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The harmful impact of abortion bans

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Chilling new data show the impact of abortion bans — and its implications for increased maternal mortality.

The Institute of Labor Economics, a nonprofit research group, found that births increased in every state that adopted an abortion ban after Roe v. Wade was repealed on June 24, 2022. Specifically, the data showed that within the first six months of 2023, between one-fifth and one-fourth of women with unplanned pregnancies were not able to obtain an abortion because of the bans. This resulted in 32,000 additional annual births.

Surprisingly, since the reversal of Roe, legal abortions in the United States have remained steady or slightly increased. This is most likely a result of new clinics that have opened to meet the demands of people traveling out of state for care. For example, the Society of Family Planning found that states with the largest increases included Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, California and New Mexico. This makes sense, since these are locations where abortion bans dominate surrounding states.

Middlebury College Professor Caitlin Myers explains, “This is an inequality story … this shows something those data cannot show: There’s a significant minority of people in ban states that do get trapped.”

What is particularly horrifying about these numbers is that giving birth in the United States can be dangerous and, in some instances, downright deadly.  According to the March of Dimes, a nonprofit for mothers and babies, more than 5.6 million women live in counties with no or limited access to maternity care. Additionally more than one-third of U.S. counties are maternity deserts, meaning that there are no obstetric providers or hospitals and birth centers offering obstetric care.

Abortion bans worsen maternal mortality. A survey of more than 2,000 current or future physicians reveals that 76 percent of respondents would not even apply to work or train in states with abortion restrictions. And doctors who specialize in high-risk pregnancies are fleeing anti-abortion states because they are unable to adequately perform their job without facing government intervention or threats of lawsuits and revocation of their license.

Without adequate maternal health care, some pregnant women will die. Prior to the reversal of Roe, maternal mortality was already on the rise. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the maternal mortality rate nearly doubled from 2018 to 2021. Women of color faced the highest increases. Non-Hispanic Black women, for instance, faced 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021, compared to 26.6 deaths per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white women.

Such numbers do not even touch on the emotional, psychological and financial hardships that people who are denied abortions endure. Research by the Turnaway Study shows that denying abortion leads to economic hardship and insecurity for years. It also compels women to stay in abusive relationships and contributes to serious health complications.

Anti-abortion bans are promulgated by religious right politicians, who repeatedly claim that abortion is a sin and that “life is precious.” However, these same leaders are not promoting any legislation that will make pregnancy, birth or raising a child safer, more affordable or more accessible.

The truth is that anti-abortion legislators have no interest in promoting reproductive justice. Christian nationalism seeks to control women’s bodies. As is often wryly said among activists (and coined by writer Adam Serwer): “The cruelty is the point.”

Let this sobering data be a strong reminder to us that religion has no place in health care legislation.

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