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The Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights the Need for Improved Abortion Reporting
Tessa Longbons | 08 May 2020
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, abortion rates in the United States are in a state of flux. In the wake of state and federal stay-at-home orders, some states have carved out an exception for abortion as an “essential” service, even as other surgeries and procedures have been delayed. Other states have temporarily suspended abortion to slow the spread of COVID-19 and conserve precious personal protective equipment. These protective orders have faced legal challenges from the abortion industry, with orders permitted to go into effect to varying extents and for varying timeframes. Beyond these legal battles, abortion in some states has been limited for practical reasons. South Dakota’s sole abortion center was forced to close due to travel restrictions that made it difficult for its itinerant abortion doctors to fly in from out of state. In contrast, other abortion centers have reported an uptick in abortions, with one abortion center performing two and a half times as many abortions as it would during a normal month, an increase driven by women traveling from other states. Some abortion-rights groups have used the coronavirus as fuel for ongoing efforts to expand access to abortion beyond clinical settings.
Despite the coverage that abortion access has received in the media in recent days, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has paid scant attention to this issue. In fact, 2020 abortion statistics from the CDC that could provide insight into the impact of the coronavirus on abortion might not be available for another three years, and even then, the available information likely will be limited. Abortion statistics in the U.S. are collected by the states rather than the federal government. With no requirement to report this information, some states are slow to share their numbers with the CDC, while other states fail to collect any abortion data. In 2016, the last year of data published by the CDC, three states were missing. Consequently, the official government reports published by the CDC are not the best source of U.S. abortion statistics. Instead, the most accurate counts come from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, which periodically surveys abortion facilities and publishes estimates of the number of abortions occurring in each state. Guttmacher’s nationwide estimate of the number of abortions occurring in 2016 was over 40 percent higher than the total reported by the CDC in its annual abortion surveillance report.
This has ramifications beyond the public’s understanding of the coronavirus. As the CDC acknowledges in its annual reports, abortion reporting serves multiple public health purposes, such as allowing for the measurement and prevention of unintended pregnancy and providing an accurate count of all pregnancies occurring in the United States. Accurate abortion data is crucial to pro-life Americans as well, as it enables the tracking of the impact of pro-life efforts and the identification of areas on which to focus. The poor quality of abortion reporting in the United States leaves a gap in our understanding of this critical public health and moral issue, as the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted.
Some efforts are underway by pro-life groups to make abortion data more readily available. Recently, the Charlotte Lozier Institute launched a map to collect state-level abortion statistics in one place as part of an effort to make them more accessible to the general public. By obtaining reports directly from the states, it is possible to view abortion trends in some parts of the country in advance of the CDC’s annual reports. However, with the coronavirus impacting interstate travel for abortion, abortion data from every state is essential to an accurate picture of abortion in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, including those states that currently do not track abortions, such as California.
Improvements to the U.S. abortion reporting system could be approached from multiple angles. Congress could create a national requirement that states collect this data and share it with the CDC, as some legislators have proposed. States can take the initiative to improve their own reporting. Model abortion reporting legislation, such as that published by Americans United for Life, offers a framework for states to follow. At the very least, states could collect all the data points requested by the CDC and share them with the CDC within a reasonable timeframe. Equally important, states could ensure that the data collected is accurate and complete by verifying that all abortion facilities are reporting and that they are aware of reporting requirements.
Already, COVID-19 has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and sickened over one million more. The CDC has rightly focused all its attention and resources on the coronavirus as a major public health crisis. However, abortion will claim the lives of approximately 800,000 Americans this year, with a total of well over 60 million deaths since the first states began to legalize abortion on demand in the late 1960s. The CDC should give the same weight to abortion that it gives to other deadly epidemics affecting American society.
 See https://studentsforlife.org/2020/04/03/south-dakota-now-abortion-free-as-planned-parenthood-shuts-down-due-to-coronavirus/ and https://www.liveaction.org/news/travel-restrictions-south-dakota-abortion/
 See H.R. 3580, Ensuring Accurate and Complete Abortion Data Act of 2019
 See CDC Abortion Surveillance Summaries, 1969-2016 and National Right to Life Committee, The State of Abortion in the United States (January 2020), https://www.nrlc.org/stateofabortion/
Tessa Longbons, Research Associate Charlotte Lozier Institute & 2020 Public Policy Fellow for the Society of St. Sebastian