Utah published new abortion statistics. Here’s what they tell us.

When asked the reason for terminating their pregnancy, with nine reasons to choose from, approximately half of people seeking an abortion told their doctor it was for financial reasons.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters gather at the Utah Capitol for a “Bans Off Our Beehive” rally in support of abortion rights on Saturday, May 14, 2022.

The most recent abortion statistics gathered and published by Utah — from 2021 — paint a picture of who might be most impacted if an abortion ban in limbo falls into place.

And while the future of reproductive care in the Beehive State is as unclear as ever, after analyzing the recently released data, two advocacy organizations on opposite ends of the abortion debate agree: Socioeconomic circumstances are driving large numbers of pregnant people to choose abortion, and something needs to be done about it.

As contraceptives have become more widely available over the past three decades, the rate of abortion in Utah has, for the most part, continued to fall. But in 2021, as Utahns were feeling the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of abortions rose slightly above the pre-pandemic level, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services, furnished to the Legislature in August and posted on the body’s website last month.

And that increase was most prevalent among the state’s most economically vulnerable populations.

In 2021, there were 3,129 abortions in Utah, 2,978 of which were provided to Utah residents. When asked the reason for terminating their pregnancy, with nine reasons to choose from, approximately half of people seeking an abortion told their doctor it was for socioeconomic reasons — they couldn’t afford to go through with giving birth and caring for a child.

Meanwhile, 31% said they sought an abortion for elective reasons, 15% said they needed an abortion because their contraception failed, and around a dozen people each turned to abortion because of mental health struggles, the pregnancy was a result of rape or because of fetal malformation.

“We know that the people who come through our door, the patients that come through our door, that decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy are often rooted in factors like the cost of child care, the availability of health insurance, and whether or not they have parental leave or mental health resources, and the ability to support additional children,” said Jason Stevenson, policy director at Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

According to data from the organization, Planned Parenthood provided 2,554 abortions in 2021 — amounting to 82% of those reported by the state.

Mary Taylor, president of the anti-abortion group Pro-Life Utah, which has a hotline for women considering an abortion and offers grants and baby supplies to pregnant people in need, responded to the numbers saying, “That is why we have the programs that we have. We feel that no woman should ever have to feel like killing her baby is the solution to an economic challenge.”

Abortion at the Capitol

Abortion is legal for up to 18 weeks of pregnancy in Utah. That restriction, however, wasn’t in place in 2021 as the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which held that abortion is a constitutionally protected right up until fetal viability (around 24 weeks), prevented it from being implemented.

When that precedent was overturned in June 2022, a near-total ban on abortion in Utah also went into effect, but it was blocked by a state district court judge within a few days. After the 2020 trigger law was enjoined, the 18-week ban from 2019 became the state’s policy, and whether or not the more restrictive ban will be enforced now lies with the Utah Supreme Court.

Taylor’s Pro-Life Utah helped draft that law, while Planned Parenthood is the organization suing to keep it off the books.

During the 2023 legislative session, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee attempted to circumvent the injunction on the law by banning abortion clinics and moving the procedure to hospitals, where abortions are only performed in rare circumstances. The law passed but was temporarily stopped in court.

While that bill was being debated, OB-GYNs and Democratic lawmakers spoke about how removing access to care at abortion clinics would affect the lowest-income Utahns.

“I think the effect of the bill, pretty clearly, is to target this group of health care providers to put abortion out of the reach for as many Utahns as possible — to make it more expensive, to require a more intensive level of service,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, in a House Judiciary Committee discussion of the bill in February.

Both Lisonbee and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who is the sponsor of the trigger law, did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

(Emily Anderson Stern | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, is pictured center, singing at an anti-abortion prayer meeting organized by Pro-Life Utah at the state Capitol on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023.

Who is having abortions?

Data provided to the Legislature in the Department of Health and Human Services report shows that the care is sought by people of all ages and all education levels, and many are using some form of contraception, already have children and are of varying marital status.

The abortions tracked in the report don’t include the removal of a fetus after a miscarriage or the removal of an ectopic pregnancy.

Both Stevenson and Taylor noted that the reasons a person might consider an abortion are individual, and vary widely from person to person.

A number of other data points from 2021 support the suggestion that a person’s socioeconomic situation plays an outsized role in the decision to have an abortion.

Approximately 48% of the women who had abortions already had children, and the vast majority had never had an abortion before. And the increase in the rate of abortion was driven by younger populations, who continue to be priced out of housing while the cost of raising a child goes up.

Another indicator that abortion numbers have been inflated by economic forces is that Utahns of color are receiving abortion care at higher levels than their white neighbors.

While census numbers indicate that approximately 1.6% of Utah’s population is Black, 6.5% of abortions in 2021 were provided for Black Utahns. Similarly, 15.1% of Utahns identify as Hispanic, according to census data, but the Hispanic community accounted for nearly 30% of abortions.

Communities of color also experience poverty at higher rates than white Utahns, according to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. While 8% of white Utahns were living in poverty in 2021, 12% of Hispanic Utahns and 23% of Black Utahns were struggling under such conditions.

While more than 95% of the abortions performed in Utah were accessed by people who live in the state, just under 5% were sought by people from out-of-state, with 63 coming from Idaho, 37 from Wyoming and 17 from Nevada.

Since the 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which left states with complete discretion in shaping abortion policy, those numbers may have fluctuated. But Stevenson said Planned Parenthood’s patients are still, for the most part, people who live in Utah.

“The people who are availing themselves of this medical service are from our towns, from our churches, people that live on our street, people that we went to school with,” Stevenson said. “It’s not people coming in from outside of the state to have abortions and then leave. This is a service that Utahns are using every year and have been for decades.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jason Stevenson, director of public policy at Planned Parenthood, speaks during a news conference to discuss the bills being considered by the Legislature that would limit abortion access in Utah, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

It will be months before the state publishes any abortion counts from after the Dobbs decision, when its abortion restrictions started to play out.

In data updated monthly, however, the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that researches sexual and reproductive health policy, estimates that the number of abortions in Utah has continued to go up, with more than 2,000 being provided in the first half of this year.

That confirms Taylor’s suspicions. She said her volunteers have seen more people walking into clinics, and that her organization has been getting more calls on its hotline.

Taylor would like to see more support for pregnant people coming from the state, but said the best solution for reducing abortions in Utah is to ban them.

“I hear that a lot of lawmakers are interested in doing something to that effect, and so we sure hope that happens this year,” Taylor said. “I think the other take-away is that we are all desperately waiting for our trigger bill to get through the courts and hopefully to go into effect because 3,129 lives were lost in 2021 from abortion, and at some point that’s got to stop.”

More support for parents would help reduce abortion rates, Stevenson agreed. But he said Utah needs to focus on policies that make both parenthood and pregnancy safer, like expanding Medicaid and reducing the cost of child care, while avoiding restrictions on abortion that he said put pregnant people at risk.

“Banning abortion, even facing the restrictions we have in Utah right now at 18 weeks, doesn’t make the reasons for these abortions go away,” Stevenson said. “People are still going to need this type of health care and abortion bans just raise these barriers in front of people who are trying to make this very challenging, difficult personal decision. They still have to make that decision.”