Researchers Struggle to Measure Impact of Abortion Restrictions in Texas

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Since House Bill 2 was introduced during a special session over a year ago, opponents of the law have been pointing to the devastating impact the law would have on access to abortion services. As the provisions of the law have gone into effect, many have focused on determining just how the law is changing abortion access for Texans.

The University of Texas Policy Evaluation Project found that the rate of abortions in Texas fell by 13 percent. Though this is a slightly more pronounced shift than the national average, it is not as large a drop as one might expect when over half of the clinics in a state have closed. Part of this is due to the difficulty of measuring the precise impact of the new law, FiveThirtyEight reports

Some results of the law are easy to quantify: we know how many clinics have closed, and what the map of abortion access looks like now in the state. But finding the tools to determine how this has effected Texans’ decisions about their pregnancies and their likelihood to end them poses a greater challenge.

The most obvious obstacle is the difficulty of determining whether and when Texans are deciding to end their pregnancies outside of a clinic. Dan Grossman, a part of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, explains why he thinks this is happening in the state – especially in the Rio Grande Valley:

One important reason that women turn to self-induction is because of a lack of clinic-based care. It’s a hypothesis, but it seems likely that given the clinic closures, greater knowledge about self-induction methods, and the high rates of poverty in the area, that this is something more women are going to consider.

Though there is a clear connection from clinic closures to self-induced abortion, evaluating and identifying this trend is especially difficult. Rachel Jones, a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Institute, explains:

Self-induced abortion is kind of invisible. It’s by definition unobservable. If a woman is successful, we don’t know about it, so we can’t count it.

What’s more, as increasingly restrictive laws pass state legislatures across the country, organizations like the Guttmacher, one of the leading sources of credible information about abortion in the United States and around the world, are having more trouble accessing information that was previously easier to find. The laws don’t only put up barriers to those trying to access abortion services, they also place an increasingly heavy burden on providers. Jones continues,

Abortion providers are under more scrutiny these days, so they’re sensitive about releasing this kind of information. And even if they want to, they’re busier than they used to be. It’s hard to find time to fill out our form.

Researchers have been struggling to find methods that accurately reflect the impact of abortion restrictions in Texas for years. In 2004 with the Women’s Right to Know Act, restrictions on facilities that could perform abortions after 16 weeks made these services far harder to access for Texans. Following the implementation of the law, there was a pronounced drop in abortions after 16 weeks in the state. One researcher wondered whether this decrease could be accounted for by looking at the number of Texans who sought abortions outside the state.

Though they did find a 300% increase in Texans leaving the state to access abortion care elsewhere, it didn’t fully explain the drop. It was almost impossible to find the data to determine whether people were seeking abortions earlier in their pregnancies, self-inducing, or choosing to carry their pregnancies to term when they found themselves outside the 16 week limit.

Then as now, it is incredibly important to determine what the real impact is of these restrictive laws on Texans’ decisions about their pregnancies. Though there is plenty of conjecture, as Grossman illustrates, and though those assumptions may not be too far off from the reality of what is happening here, finding ways to quantify the results of restricting access to abortion is important to providers, researchers, legislators, and the people who need access to abortion services. Unfortunately, the same laws that create this need simultaneously make it more difficult for researchers to find the answers.

About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for State Rep. Mary Gonzalez under the pink dome, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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