Infant deaths spiked 13% in Texas following law restricting abortion, study finds

States with abortion access did not experience the same increase, emphasizing the fallout of attacks on abortion

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor
Published June 27, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)
Updated June 27, 2024 4:36PM (EDT)
Empty Medical Incubator (Getty Images/Capuski)
Empty Medical Incubator (Getty Images/Capuski)

A restrictive abortion law in Texas has been linked to in a sharp uptick in infant mortality that other states did not experience, a new study has found. Pediatric heath researchers from John Hopkins University report the number of newborn babies dying in Texas has increased by approximately 13% since the state's near-total abortion ban went into effect, according to a recent investigation in JAMA Pediatrics.

The rest of the United States saw only a 2% infant mortality increase in the same period. Deadly congenital abnormalities were the leading cause of death, increasing 22.9% in the state compared to 2.9% nationwide. Researchers said this suggests a rise in cases where women are forced to carry a pregnancy to term, despite knowing the fetus had little or no chance of survival.

"Our analysis provides among the first empirical evidence on the association of recent highly restrictive abortion policies with infant health," the authors wrote, noting "we were unable to examine differences by race and ethnicity, which are currently available on death certificate data, due to the large amount of missing data in these subgroups."

Known as SB8, the Texas law bans abortion after six weeks with few exceptions in life-threatening pregnancies. It is also called the Texas Heartbeat Act, though this is misleading given a fetus does not actually have a heart at this stage. Six weeks is a period often before many people realize they're pregnant.

"We had read the literature that was showing an association [of infant death increases] with prior abortion restrictions or states that are hostile to abortion,” said Alison Gemmill, perinatal epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the analysis in an interview with STAT News. “We think it’s actually a causal effect."

Gemmill's research found in 2021 there were 1,985 infant deaths in Texas occurring before a child reached one year old. After the state's abortion law took effect those numbers spiked. By 2022, not only had the total number of infant deaths occurring under the age of one risen — to 2,240 in the same period — but more than half of those babies were still newborns, dying before they reached 28 days old.

While the leading causes of the deaths were congenital abnormalities, sharp rises were also noted elsewhere. Unintentional injuries, often associated with forced pregnancies, rose 20.7% in the state compared to 1.1% across the U.S. And infant deaths due to maternal complications in pregnancy increased 18.2%, compared to 7.8% nationally. Gemmill told STAT that these numbers only paint a partial picture of the long-term impact of abortion bans, and that her plan is to focus her research on infant morbidity.

"Although replication and further analyses are needed to understand the mechanisms behind these findings, our results indicate that restrictive abortion policies may have important unintended consequences in terms of trauma to families and medical cost," Gemmill and her co-authors concluded. "These findings are particularly relevant given the recent Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization US Supreme Court decision and subsequent rollbacks of reproductive rights in many US states."

Rae Hodge contributed reporting to this article.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

MORE FROM Troy Farah

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Abortion Bans Forced Birth Gop Health Infant Mortality Pediactrics Reproductive Rights Women's Rights