Fertility rates among Harris County women were up in 2022 after nearly a decade of decline. A January report from the University of Houston attributes this trend to the state’s ban on abortion beyond six weeks of pregnancy in 2021.

“The data takes a while to come out, and the effects take a while to be felt, so it wasn’t until 2022 that you would start seeing whether there was an effect on fertility,” said Elizabeth Gregory, the director of the UH women’s gender and sexuality studies program.

Texas had 16,147 more births in 2022 than in 2021, while the national fertility rate continued a downward trend, according to the report. Gregory said Texas was one of 10 states that saw an increase in fertility rates in 2022, and teen fertility rates rose for the first time since 2007.

Gregory said this trend could impact Cy-Fair’s workforce, child care availability, domestic violence dynamics, maternal mortality rates and poverty rates.

The breakdown

Harris County’s fertility rate increased 2.88% in 2022. Gregory said women with limited access to contraception and out-of-state travel for abortion services have been impacted most.

The age group with the highest fertility rate increase was 40-44 at 8.91%.

“It often comes down to finances—’I can’t afford a child’ or ‘I can’t afford another child.’ ... Half of our [clients] already have children,” said Nanda Kirkpatrick, executive director of Care Net Pregnancy Center, which has a location in Cy-Fair.

Most Care Net clients are low-wage earners and may not be able to afford child care, she said. In addition to confirming pregnancies and counseling individuals through their decision-making process, the organization connects clients to Medicaid application assistance, employment resources, education and baby supplies.

Two-thirds of Care Net clients have either already decided they want an abortion or they’re not sure what they want to do, Kirkpatrick said.

“Maybe they don’t have support from [the] baby’s father; maybe they don’t have support from mom and dad; maybe they’re in school or unemployed, or have some health issues—you know, just complicated life circumstances,” she said.
Some context

Leading up to 2022, Harris County saw a steady decline in fertility rates starting in 2015. Teen fertility rates dropped about 67% nationally since 2007. Gregory attributed this to economic factors and increased access to contraception.

The Texas Legislature banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy in 2021 through Senate Bill 8. Community Impact previously reported the bill included a medical emergency exception but offered no exception to victims of rape, sexual assault or incest.

“All of us are united by the truth that our creator endowed us with the right to life,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a January 2023 Texas Rally for Life event in Austin. “With your help, we made transformational changes in Texas law [during the 87th Texas Legislature]—life-saving changes. We promised we would protect the life of every child with a heartbeat, and we did. ... All of you are lifesavers, and thousands of newborn babies are the result of your heroic efforts.”

A report from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated this policy led to an additional 9,800 births statewide from April-December 2022.

About a year after the state law passed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which led to Texas fully banning abortion as of August 2022 unless the mother’s life is at risk.

The Dobbs case overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that ruled abortion was a fundamental right. The UH report indicates 20 additional states have passed abortion bans since, including neighboring states Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. New Mexico is Texas’ only border state without abortion restrictions.

Despite it being illegal in Texas, Kirkpatrick said the abortion pill is easily accessible online, and many women travel to other states where abortion is still legal. Care Net also employs medical professionals who educate women about their options.

“With abortion being illegal, ... girls don’t have a medical professional to talk to,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’re not being told about risks and complications of taking the abortion pill.”
Current situation

Care Net Pregnancy Center served 2,200 women at its Champions and Cypress locations in 2023, and Kirkpatrick said that number increases 8%-10% each year. A third center opened in Humble in January.

Sandra Pickett, executive director of New Life Adoption in northwest Houston, said a record 20 adoption placements were completed last year compared to 10-12 in an average year. While New Life sees birth mothers from all walks of life, Pickett said they all typically lack support or resources.

“They’re just not ready to be parents, and they don’t have the time or the resources to travel to New Mexico for an abortion, so they just move forward in their pregnancy,” she said.

Franklin Sampson, director of guidance and counseling in Cy-Fair ISD, said the district serves 150-250 teen parents annually and offers homebound education for six weeks after birth; day cares at each high school; and teen parenting and child development classes.

Looking ahead

Gregory said she believes a rise in fertility rates due to abortion restrictions could have significant socioeconomic implications.

“Some people may think, ‘Oh, that’s good. We want more people,’” she said. “But if you assume that will be a largely impoverished group and that it will be skewed by race and ethnicity based on access to reliable contraception ... then you ask questions about equity in your community.”

The Turnaway Study from the University of California, San Francisco, found those who were denied an abortion were more likely to face economic hardship, stay in contact with a violent partner, raise their child alone and face more serious health problems.

Additionally, Gregory said states with abortion bans could see negative effects on their workforce long-term. A survey conducted by the University of Houston found 46% of people are reluctant to move to states with abortion bans, while 14.6% desired to move to states with restrictive abortion policies.

Gregory also said there are health implications as Texas women with pregnancy complications have been denied abortions. Community Impact reported in 2022 that Texas’ maternal mortality rate was 14% higher than the national average, and those rates are particularly high for women of color and those 40 and older.

Dr. Deborah Turner, former president of the League of Women Voters of the U.S., wrote a blog post last June on the anniversary of the Dobbs ruling explaining the effects pregnancy and childbirth can have on a woman’s health. She said in many circumstances, abortions may be necessary if the pregnancy is non-viable or life-threatening to the mother.

“This can occur when someone begins miscarrying and requires care that is identical to what we’d consider an abortion by choice. At least 10% of pregnancies end in miscarriage,” she wrote. “Without immediate, appropriate care, many women could—and have—died from the inability to find safe and reliable care.”

Texas fertility rates are expected to increase an additional 5.1% in 2023 following the total abortion ban—a larger increase than any other state.

Hannah Norton contributed to this report.