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Study: Eroding Abortion Access Goes Hand in Hand with Poor Maternal Health Outcomes

Nicole Knight

"This report clearly lays out that politicians pushing extreme anti-choice laws at the expense of public health have their priorities exactly backwards.”

Back in 2010, Democrats held the governor’s office in 26 states and controlled about 55 percent of the country’s legislative seats. Fast forward to 2017, and Democrats hold 16 governors’ offices and 42 percent of seats in state legislatures.

A new report suggests this shifting partisan landscape has not only eroded abortion access—with nearly 400 abortion restrictions passed since 2010—but also harmed the health and welfare of women and children. States with the harshest abortion restrictions performed worse than less restrictive states on key benchmarks of child and maternal health, according a report released Tuesday by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health.

“Among states with 10 or more abortion restrictions, we see higher rates of maternal mortality, pre-term births, and low birth weight infants as compared with the national average,” said Terri-Ann Thompson, associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, and one of the report’s authors.

Child mortality, for example, is higher in states with a dozen or more abortion restrictions—including Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, all states with GOP-dominated legislatures. Meanwhile, the maternal mortality rate doubled between 2010 and 2012 in Texas, which has some of the nation’s most extreme abortion laws.

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The authors suggest that states with the most anti-abortion laws typically lack evidence-based health and welfare policies.

“This report makes clear that politicians in states with the most extreme record of attacking reproductive rights are also far less likely to support the kind of programs and policies that actually advance the health and well-being of families,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

The 65-page report updates one released in 2014. The authors scored states by comparing the number of state-level abortion restrictions against about two dozen variables of health and welfare, ranging from child mortality to food insecurity. By graphing the variables on a scatter plot, they found restrictive states generally clustered on the worse end of the health-and-welfare spectrum, while the least-restrictive states scored better.

In states with more anti-abortion laws,  Thompson found fewer policies to support women before and after pregnancy.

And we know that policies, such as ‘increased Medicaid eligibility limits for pregnant women’ have been shown to increase health care coverage of pregnant women and reduce infant mortality and low birth weight,” she told Rewire. “If those policies are not in place, then we don’t see the resulting benefits for women and children’s health outcomes.”

While Thompson acknowledges poverty plays a role in women’s and children’s well-being, she said it doesn’t explain the differences they found among states. New Mexico, she noted, has 15 policies that support health and well-being, but also a high rate of women living in poverty: 18 percent. In comparison, 9 percent of Wyoming women live in poverty, but the state has only four supportive policies.

Twenty-six states have ten or more abortion restrictions, while 24 have fewer than ten. The authors found the states with ten or more abortions restrictions accounted for an outsize share of the nearly 400 abortion restrictions passed since Republicans swept to power in 2010.

“These findings are troubling, as ample scientific evidence makes clear that restricting abortion is detrimental, while supportive policies are beneficial to women,” the authors note.

They suggest a reprieve is unlikely. Texas Republicans, for example, introduced 20 new anti-choice restrictions in a recent three-week special legislative session. Meanwhile, the Center for Reproductive Rights recently challenged abortion restrictions in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

“What women, children and their families need their elected officials to focus on is increasing access to affordable health care, including Medicaid, so women can have prenatal care, cervical cancer screenings, and fewer preterm births,” Northup said. “This report clearly lays out that politicians pushing extreme anti-choice laws at the expense of public health have their priorities exactly backwards.”

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