The pandemic baby bust never happened — millions of women couldn't get birth control or an abortion

The pandemic baby bust never happened — millions of women couldn't get birth control or an abortion
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  • A large decline in births is typical of recessions and public health crises, but there wasn't one during COVID-19.
  • That's because Trump-era policies and reduced healthcare access meant people couldn't get birth control or abortions.

There was less of a baby bust than expected because of COVID-19 — but that doesn't reflect changing family planning dynamics in the United States.

Instead, it's indicative of shrinking access to abortions and birth control across the country, especially for low-income women.

That's according to a recent paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research, which found that the 2020 COVID-19 recession was much different than earlier recessions, in that the number of babies born barely changed. The Brookings Institute predicted in 2020 that the pandemic would likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust, projecting 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021. In reality, there were only 60,000 fewer babies born because of the pandemic.

The NBER researchers found that because access to contraception and abortion fell in 2020 as reproductive health centers temporarily closed or reduced their capacity, low-income women are especially experiencing a "large increase in unplanned births."

That's as the pandemic has made having children less financially feasible for struggling households. During 2020, poverty increased across the US, and a third of American women said they wanted to delay pregnancy or have fewer children because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a 2020 Guttmacher Institute survey of 2,000 people. Minority, low-income, and queer women were especially likely to say their family planning goals had changed.


Revisions that former President Donald Trump made to Title X, the country's only national, federally funded family planning program, also limited the number of abortions low-income women had during the pandemic, the researchers said. And the surge of new abortion restrictions across mostly Republican-led states over the last few months may make reproductive healthcare access even more difficult over the next few years.

"In short, at the same time changes in the economy reduced the demand for children, the supply of contraceptives and access to abortion fell and likely moderated the baby bust," the researchers wrote.

Trump-era policies kept people from accessing abortions

Many episodes throughout US history show that pregnancies and birth rates fall in response to financial uncertainty and economic downturns, the researchers wrote. Citing the Guttmacher Institute survey, they say that it shouldn't have been any different during COVID, when people planned to put the brakes on having kids.

Birth rates also tend to drop during public health crises, like during the Spanish Flu. The pandemic's economic turmoil fused with a health one, which led experts to believe that the impact on births would be even greater.

That was evidenced as recently as the Great Recession less than two decades ago. In 2012, the number of babies born dropped 9% compared to 2007, accounting for about 400,000 fewer births that year.


But it was harder for women to access reproductive services during the pandemic, especially low-income and minority women. Part of the reason was logistical: health care centers canceled or limited appointments in accordance with social distancing guidelines, and patients chose to limit in-person interactions.

But part of the reason is that women receiving subsidized health care through the Title X Public Health Care Service Act saw restricted access to reproductive services. The Trump Administration changed national guidelines in 2019, pulling funding for providers who referred patients to abortion providers, and requiring that recipients of federal funds physically separate sites that provide non-abortion reproductive health services from those that provide abortions.

The Title X changes under Trump led more than 1,000 health care centers in 34 states to withdraw from Title X funding — sites that had served more than 1.5 million patients in the year before the rule took effect, according to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

And near-total abortion bans that have been introduced in 30 states this year are all but assured to take the choice to have children out of the hands of many more people.