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Studies find Texas heartbeat law prevented fewer abortions than previously known

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Early estimates that abortions in Texas fell by as much as 60% because of the state's fetal heartbeat law may have been greatly exaggerated, according to two studies, since most women seeking abortions either traveled out of state or ordered abortifacients online. The studies suggest that abortions fell by a figure closer to 10% — though pro-life activists were happy to learn there were that many babies being born instead of killed.

Two teams of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin counted how many women were obtaining abortions through pills ordered online or by traveling out of state, the New York Times reported. They found that even though Texas banned abortions after an unborn baby's heartbeat can be detected — around six weeks of pregnancy — the restriction reduced abortions by much less than previously thought.

One of the studies found that an average of 1,391 women traveled to one of seven nearby states for an abortion each month between September 2021, when the heartbeat law was enacted, and the end of the year. The researchers said this was 12 times the typical number of Texas women who went out of state seeking an abortion before the law passed.

Those seven states included New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi and Colorado. About 45% of those women traveled to Oklahoma for their abortion, and another 27% went to New Mexico. There are 44 open abortion clinics within those seven states, but only visits to 34 of them were counted in the study, meaning it is likely that even more Texans obtained abortions than is currently known.

“The law has not done anything to change people’s need for abortion care; it has shifted where people are getting their abortion,” lead researcher Kari White said in a statement to the Times. She was surprised the restrictions had not prevented more abortions. "The numbers are way bigger than we expected. It’s pretty astounding,” she said.

In addition to those that traveled out of state, an average of 1,100 Texas women ordered abortifacients each month from Aid Access, a nonprofit service that provides telemedicine abortions to U.S. women from overseas doctors in Europe or pharmacists from India. This was more than triple the number who ordered abortion pills in an average month before the heartbeat law, according to a second study published in JAMA Network Open last week.

Abortion pill orders surged from an average of 11 per day to 138 per day after the law went into effect, though now they have decreased to about 30. The study tracked only abortifacient orders and could not determine whether each request resulted in an abortion.

“The law is semi-effective; it will not stop all abortions,” study author Abigail R.A. Aiken, the lead investigator for a research group studying self-managed abortions in the United States for the University of Texas at Austin, said.

Taken together, the studies suggest that even if states enact tighter abortion restrictions, there are ways in which some women will circumvent the law. Women with the economic means to travel will go elsewhere to kill unwanted children. Nonprofit groups will act to assist poorer women obtain abortions.

No law will be perfect, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wadelater this summer in a ruling on Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban. But pro-life activists see even a few protected children as a victory.

“There’s no hesitation from our side to declare this a victory for actually protecting pre-born children from elective abortion,” John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life, said in a statement to the Times.

“We’re realists around here, so the best we can do is incentivize women to have their children.”

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