No matter which side of the Roe v. Wade debate you lean towards, it’s clear from the data that abortion access is not only a social issue, but also an economic issue. With the Supreme Court potentially poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that federally protected abortion rights in light of the draft majority opinion leak published in POLITICO, the final decision is expected later this month or early July.
The pending Mississippi abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, is happening at a time when the pandemic impact on women and the economy has reached an inflection point. It became apparent during the ongoing pandemic that mothers in America have served as society’s social safety net, yet they lack the support and infrastructure that would enable them to be successful at work and at home. The pay gap, motherhood penalty, lack of affordable childcare and lack of a national paid leave policy were some of the factors that pushed women out of the workforce at higher rates than men, with women of color leaving at the highest rates. Today there are still 656,000 fewer women in the workforce than there were pre-pandemic, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Women in the workforce are essential to our economy. Caregivers are essential to our economy. Overturning Roe v. Wade can impact women’s ability to take care of themselves and the children they have now or in the future. Approximately 60% of women in the U.S. who have abortions are already mothers, and approximately one-third of women seeking an abortion say their reason for wanting to terminate the pregnancy is to care for children they already have, according to a study in the Journal of Pediatrics.
“This is an issue that affects women’s own decision making about their lives and their families,” says Diana Greene Foster, PhD, professor at the University of California San Francisco and lead author of the landmark Turnaway Study, which examines the effects of unwanted pregnancies on women’s lives. “It’s not irresponsible people who are in this situation; it is people who are trying to make a responsible decision to take care of themselves and their kids. When we take that decision away from people and instead let the government decide when they have a baby, their outcomes are worse. The ramifications are just humongous not only for that individual, but for her family. We’re talking about overriding people’s own life course and family decisions.”
The leaked draft opinion states, “Americans who believe abortion should be restricted press countervailing arguments about modern developments. They note that attitudes about the pregnancy of unmarried women have changed drastically; that federal and state laws ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, that leave for pregnancy and childbirth are now guaranteed by law in many cases, that the costs of medical care associated with pregnancy are covered by insurance or government assistance…”
Caitlin Myers, professor of economics at Middlebury College and who, along with more than 150 other economists, filed an amicus brief to highlight the impacts of abortion legalization in the U.S. and model what would happen if Roe v. Wade was overturned, says, “There is a mountain of rigorous evidence on these questions, so it is completely unsupportable for the court to say, ‘We don’t have any way to know if this is going to impact anybody.’ Mississippi in their argument is basically telling us we have all these policy advances that now make it possible for people to balance parenthood and work with little sacrifice. I don’t even know why you need an economist to tell you that argument is wrong. If you know any working parents, you know they struggle with that balance. There shouldn’t be any disagreement that the American economy is especially challenging for working mothers. We should be able to acknowledge that as a fact.”
Here are some ways that the research illustrates how overturning Roe v. Wade could impact the economy, and society at large.
Decreased workforce participation. When a larger number of the population are employed, their paychecks mean more money to spend on food, clothing, entertainment and goods that in turn increases demand and helps fuel the GDP. It’s clear that parental status has an impact on women’s labor force participation. For example, the fact that women continue to shoulder the majority of caregiving duties may be a contributing factor prompting 43% of highly-qualified working mothers to leave their careers at some point, according to the Harvard Business Review. The financial implications are big: Women lose an average of 18% of their earning power when they take an off-ramp and 37% of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workforce.
There is also research showing the specific impact of abortion access for women in the workforce: The amicus brief filed by economists found abortion had a bigger impact on women’s labor force participation than birth control, leading to increased wages, especially for Black women. Women who were unable to get an abortion were three times more likely to be unemployed after six months as compared with women who were able to get an abortion, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
“For people who are denied abortions, we see an immediate drop in full-time employment. Yes, public assistance goes up, but it’s not enough to mitigate the loss of employment income, because public assistance isn’t enough to support a family,” says Dr. Foster. “Some people aren’t eligible because of the number of kids they’ve already had or they time out. You can see higher levels of food stamps for people who are denied abortions. Another metric we ask people is whether they have enough money for basic living needs. We see that people who are denied abortions are more likely to report they don’t have enough money, and it lasts for the whole five years that we studied people.”
The Turnaway Study from the University of California San Francisco was a research project following 1,000 women for five years with unwanted pregnancies, some who were able to have abortions and others who were turned away from the procedure. A 24-year old woman quoted in the Turnaway Study shared, “Pregnancy definitely has a negative impact on people’s financial well-being. Because it is very, very difficult to find a job when you’re pregnant, to keep a job when you’re pregnant, and to find or maintain a job with a baby, especially if your partner is a [explicit] and doesn’t want to help. So, I think that on that end, the incidence of domestic violence skyrockets, because you’re financially dependent on your partner because you have to be home with the kid.”
If state-wide abortion restrictions were eliminated, an estimated 505,000 more women aged 15 to 44 would be in the labor force who would earn over $3 billion dollars annually, and already-employed women would earn $101.8 billion more—helping to fuel the state’s economy, according to an Institute For Women’s Policy Research report.
Decreased earning potential. While younger women may be closing the wage gap in some major cities, any gains made diminish once they have children when women’s wages drop due in part to bias, discrimination, and lack of support infrastructure. The most recent data from the National Women’s Law Center shows mothers working full-time, year-round outside the home are paid 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. The gap widens based on race and ethnicity: Latina mothers are paid 46 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers; Native American mothers are paid 50 cents; Black mothers are paid 52 cents; and white, non-Hispanic mothers are paid 71 cents.
“What we see right now, just like in the 70s, is that childbearing is the single biggest explanatory factor for gender gaps in economic outcomes,” says Myers. “If you look at data on men and women’s earnings, for instance, they tend to be pretty similar up until the point that they become parents. That’s when men’s earnings are not impacted or even increase slightly, but for women, it falls off a cliff and it is a permanent shock.”
Moreover, safe and affordable childcare is key for enabling women to stay in the workforce, but childcare costs have increased 41% during the pandemic. Parents now spend an average of $14,117 annually on center-based childcare providers, finds a LendingTree report.
The Turnaway Study research found that women denied an abortion who had to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term had four times greater odds of living below the Federal Poverty Level. It also found that being denied an abortion lowered a woman’s credit score, increased a woman’s amount of debt and increased the number of their negative public financial records, such as bankruptcies and evictions. New research from SSNR finds that abortion restrictions could further push women out of the workforce or impact them in terms of taking lower-paying jobs.
Negative impact on children’s financial wellbeing. A lack of abortion access can not only impact women, but also the financial wellbeing of their children. The Turnaway Study found children born as a result of women’s being denied abortion procedures are more likely to live below the federal poverty level than children born from a subsequent pregnancy to women who received the abortion.
“The research on women unable to get an abortion shows that existing kids are more likely to be living in poverty, more likely to be living in a home without enough money for basic living needs and are also less likely to achieve developmental gross motor, fine motor, language and social emotional milestones,” says Dr. Foster.
Negative impact on equality. Access to abortion can impact gender and racial equality by enabling women to choose when to become parents, and therefore have greater control over their education, careers and economic security. The amicus brief reported that legalized abortion reduced teen motherhood by 34% and reduced teen marriage by 20%. For Black women, who have a higher rate of maternal mortality, the estimated reduction in birth rate was two to three times greater than that for white women, and Black women also experienced a 28 to 40% decline in maternal mortality due to legalization. In addition, the brief reports a 22 to 24% increase in the probability that Black teenage women graduated high school and a 23 to 27% increase in their probability of attending college.
“People who seek abortions are disproportionately people of color, so it’s already hitting a population that tends to be systemically disadvantaged,” says Dr. Foster. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the most economically privileged among people who become pregnant will be able to get abortions, and the least privileged will not. It will exacerbate these health disparities, these economic disparities, and these racial disparities.”
Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, women seeking abortions in states without access will have to travel to states where it is legal—requiring money, time off of work, and childcare for existing children. “If we’re talking about a scenario in which half the states ban abortion and half the states don’t, we are returning to a world where women with means will continue to get abortions and poor women will be prevented from doing so,” says Myers. “The women who will be most affected are young women, women of color, poor women, and particularly those living in urban areas in the deep South and the Midwest.”
In the U.S., caregiving has been treated as an individual responsibility, largely falling on women to provide paid and unpaid care, with a shortage of affordable childcare options and lack of a national paid parental leave that have served as barriers for women staying in the workforce, rising up into top leadership positions, and achieving economic equality. “If people were sincere about being a pro-life and pro child, they would start with fixing all the social safety nets for low income families and families with disabled kids. They would not start by making people have kids that they can’t afford and can’t support,” says Dr. Foster.