While eight Supreme Court justices are hearing arguments in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the Texas abortion case that will determine the fate of reproductive rights in America, one economist has painted a grim picture that harkens back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days of life-threatening back-alley and coat hanger abortions. Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote in the New York Times that there's a "a disturbing level" of "hidden demand for self-induced abortion reminiscent of the era before Roe v. Wade."
There are no national surveys that tell us how many women seek self-induced abortions. However, an analysis of Google searches shows there's been a spike in the number of people researching self-induced abortions, and it is correlated to the rise of anti-abortion restrictions across the country.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that women have about 1 million legal abortions a year. In 2015, there were over 700,000 Google searches for self-induced abortions searches, which ranged from looking for abortion pills online, to searching "how to have a miscarriage," to, most disturbingly, looking for directions on how to perform a coat hanger abortion.
Stephens-Davidowitz reports that the demand is "concentrated in areas where it is most difficult to get an abortion, and it has closely tracked the recent state-level crackdowns on abortion.":
The state with the highest rate of Google searches for self-induced abortions is Mississippi, which now has one abortion clinic. Eight of the 10 states with the highest search rates for self-induced abortions are considered by the Guttmacher Institute to be hostile or very hostile to abortion. None of the 10 states with the lowest search rates for self-induced abortion are in either category.Search rates for self-induced abortion were fairly steady from 2004 through 2007. They began to rise in late 2008, coinciding with the financial crisis and the recession that followed. They took a big leap in 2011, jumping 40 percent. The Guttmacher Institute singles out 2011 as the beginning of the country's recent crackdown on abortion; 92 provisions that restrict access to abortion were enacted. There was not a comparable increase in searches for self-induced abortions in Canada, which has not cracked down.
The research doesn't tell us how many people actually went through with self-induced abortions, of course. But it reflects what many doctors, researchers and activists already know to be true—that when desperate women don't have safe and legal access to an abortion, they will begin to seek alternate and likely highly dangerous methods of terminating a pregnancy. Remember, too that the cost of self-induced abortion is high—sometimes ending in jail time or even death. If states continue to restrict a woman's access to a safe and legal abortion in the years to come, it's not hard to imagine that the demand for self-induced abortions will rise even more.
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