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Study Links Abortion Legalization, Decreases in Infant Mortality in the U.S.

Study Links Abortion Legalization, Decreases in Infant Mortality in the U.S.

March 26, 2015 — Summary of "Reproductive Justice and the Pace of Change: Socioeconomic Trends in US Infant Death Rates by Legal Status of Abortion, 1960-1980," Krieger et al., American Journal of Public Health, April 2015.

"As restrictions increase on access to abortion in the United States, it is timely to revisit and build on previous research that examined whether US infant mortality rates were affected by 1960s and 1970s policies that expanded access to abortion," according to a study by Nancy Krieger of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues.

The researchers "hypothesized that between 1960 and 1980, the steepest annual percentage declines in the infant death rate would occur" in "states that legalized abortion in 1970, relative to states that decreased restrictions or kept abortion strictly illegal prior to national legalization of abortion in 1973." As a corollary, they hypothesized that "state abortion law status would be less associated with mid- to late-1960s declines in infant mortality" that previous research connected to "beneficial economic and social changes" related to the Civil Rights Act and the "War on Poverty."


The researchers used national mortality data from 1960 to 1967 and from 1968 to 1980 to calculate the infant death rate.

Specifically, the researchers "stratified the individual-level mortality records and census denominator data by age, gender and race/ethnicity and aggregated them to the county level." The findings were broken down by "state legal status and income quintile, for the total US, Black, and White population."

States were classified into three groups for the analysis:

~ States where abortion was legalized in 1970 (four states);

~ States where "a model penal code enacted between 1967 and 1972" made abortion laws "less stringent" (14 states); and

~ States where abortion remained illegal until Roe v. Wade in 1973 (32 states and Washington, D.C.).


The researchers found that all three sets of states saw "the fastest decline in rates" from 1970 to 1973 and that "these declines were evident in the bottom 3 and top 2 income quintiles." However, the researchers noted that the "largest decline" was seen among "the lowest 3 income quintiles in the states that legalized abortion."

According to the researchers, "[t]he only other period" when the annual percentage change in infant mortality rates declined in both the bottom three and top two income quintiles was during the mid-1960s. During that time period, the "declines were smaller and did not vary by state abortion law status," but they "were especially evident for Black and White infants in the lowest 3 income quintiles," the researchers wrote.


The researchers wrote that their "descriptive analysis newly extends and integrates previous strands of research that separately examined US trends in infant mortality rates in the 1960s and 1970s in relation to legalization of abortion, abolition of Jim Crow laws, and the War on Poverty."

They added that their findings offer a "reverse mirror to" current abortion restrictions, "conjoined with rising economic inequality and voter intimidation," and concluded that the findings "imply that research is warranted on how currently rising restrictions on abortions may be affecting US infant mortality rates and racial/ethnic and economic inequities in these rates."