(CN) — A hotly contested Texas policy that halted abortions during the early days of the pandemic forced hundreds of women to travel out of state for care and led to a spike in later-term abortions after the policy was abandoned, a new study finds.
Researchers who examined the impacts of the short-lived ban say the policy exacerbated existing barriers to abortion in a state where lawmakers have increasingly restricted the procedure in recent years.
The researchers’ findings, published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest that the ban ultimately blocked some Texas women from getting an abortion just as a deadly pandemic took hold of the nation and crippled the state’s economy.
“Overall, fewer patients were able to get abortions,” said Kari White, a researcher with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project who led the study. “And a good number of those who did ended up getting care later in pregnancy.”
In March, Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order temporarily banning most surgeries and medical procedures in the state in order to free up hospital resources for Covid-19 patients.
After the state’s attorney general warned that the ban applied to abortions, Planned Parenthood quickly sued, arguing in part that the ban was unwarranted because most abortions don’t occur in hospitals and hospitalizations from abortion complications are rare.
Still, Monday’s study found that the temporary ban had widespread impacts on abortion access.
Abortions in Texas dropped by 38% in April compared to the year before because of the policy, researchers found, while 947 women traveled out of the state seeking an abortion during the same month. By comparison, 157 women left the state for an abortion in February, the month before the ban.
Once the order expired, second-trimester abortions in Texas shot up by 61%, the study found.
According to White, most of the women who sought an abortion out of state in April traveled to New Mexico, which has much less restrictive abortion laws than Texas. But some women couldn’t afford the journey, couldn’t find a clinic that would accept them or were simply lost in the flurry of back-and-forth court rulings on the issue.
“I went online every single day to see if anything had changed,” said one anonymous 25-year-old the researchers interviewed. “I noticed the judge [had] temporarily stopped the ban, so I called them and tried to make an appointment. [The clinic] was going to make me an appointment, and then the next day it just went right back to the way it was. It made things really confusing.”
“It was a very chaotic time period,” White said. “I think it was a very stressful set of considerations that they had in mind in order to make their decision.”
Nationwide, trade groups for medical professionals warned early on during the pandemic against the kinds of abortion restrictions that Texas wound up instituting.
Ultimately, the fears from state leaders that somehow abortions would hinder hospitals’ ability to care for Covid-19 patients never came to pass, even with much higher surges in Covid-19 hospitalizations in Texas over the summer, months after the ban expired, and more recently around the holiday season.
“It rarely results in a complication that would require hospitalization,” White said. “The state officials claiming that prohibiting abortion would somehow free up PPE and hospital capacity was just unsubstantiated by the evidence around how abortion care is safe overall, and out of step with the professional guidelines around how abortion care could be provided safely while still maintaining a low risk of exposure during a pandemic.”