For all their talk about “life,” the states that have sharply restricted or outright banned abortion since the Supreme Court allowed them to do so have a shockingly bad record on protecting the lives of new mothers and newborn babies. And that’s before those harsh restrictions went into place, further endangering vulnerable pregnant people.
A new report from the Gender Equity Policy Institute, first reported at Axios, looks at a range of reproductive health outcomes in the states before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, seeking to “establish a baseline for future assessments of the effects of abortion bans on women’s health and wellbeing in the coming years.” But even the baseline makes clear that there are huge divides in the reproductive freedom and safety available in the groups of states that the report dubs “supportive” vs. “restrictive” or “banned.”
The numbers are horrifying.
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The U.S. has long had one of the highest maternal mortality rates among wealthy democracies, and it’s not getting any better, rising sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while maternal mortality rose across the country during the pandemic, birthing people had much better chances in states that are supportive of abortion rights and other reproductive care. According to the report, “In 2018, the maternal mortality rate in banned states was nearly 2 times that in supportive states. By 2021, it was 2.4 times that in supportive states”—and in some cases, the difference was up to three times.
One in seven maternal deaths happened in Texas in this period. Texas is a big state, but it isn’t home to one in seven people in the U.S. It’s not even home to one in 10.
One key issue was the significant overlap between the states that have restricted or banned abortion and the states that have not expanded Medicaid or have not extended Medicaid coverage for one year postpartum. (Maternal mortality includes death during pregnancy or childbirth or for up to a year postpartum.) The end result of that and other policies was that single mothers were much more likely to be uninsured in restrictive or banned states than in supportive states. They’re all about life, just not providing the medical care to help protect it.
Newborn babies also had a much higher mortality rate in restrictive and banned states than supportive states. The U.S. has improved neonatal mortality in recent years, but babies and young children in supportive states are more likely to survive than babies in banned and restrictive states: “In 2021, the neonatal mortality rate in banned states was 30% higher than that in supportive states. These state group differences are true for young children, as well. The under-5 mortality in banned states rate was 38% higher than that in supportive states.” Once again, Medicaid expansion played a role in the mortality rates.
It’s all about life, I’m telling you.
There are huge racial disparities everywhere, with Black and Native mothers more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than other groups. The death rate was 4.5 times higher for Indigenous mothers than for white ones, and 2.6 times higher for Black mothers than for white ones. Similarly, the death rates among Black and Native newborns were 2.3 times and 1.3 times higher, respectively, than among white newborns.
Also higher in the states that have now banned or restricted abortion: teen births. Births and abortions dropped among teenagers between 2016 and 2021, but the teen birth rate started at a lower point and fell by more in the supportive states. Because it’s not just about abortion. Availability of contraception and sex education matter when it comes to teen pregnancy.
We also know that abortion bans have serious economic consequences. “Some of the economic consequences of being denied an abortion include a higher chance of being in poverty even four years after; a lower likelihood of being employed full time; and an increase in unpaid debts and financial distress lasting years,” the Economic Policy Institute’s Asha Banerjee writes. Poverty has a lasting effect on health and mortality—and, again, the baseline is worse in the banned and restrictive states.
So that’s the baseline, the state of play in the years immediately before states started being able to ban abortion. The coming years will show how those bans and restrictions change matters. According to one study cited in the dissent to Dobbs, “Experts estimate that a ban on abortion increases maternal mortality by 21 percent, with white women facing a 13 percent increase in maternal mortality while Black women face a 33 percent increase.”
Nothing the Republicans who control the states that have banned or sharply restricted abortion are doing suggests that their numbers will suddenly improve. Because it was never about life to begin with.
'A ban on abortion increases maternal mortality by 21% … Black women face a 33% increase'
Maternal and infant mortality is highest in states that are banning abortion