May 12, 2022 - Economy & Business

Overturning Roe could reverse economic gains

Illustration of a woman sitting on a small stack of quarters while in the shadow of a larger stack of quarters.
Aïda Amer/Axios

Legalizing abortion was one of the most meaningful economic policies of the past 50 years for women — bolstering their educational attainment and career advancement, as well as reducing poverty rates for women and families, research shows.

Why it matters: If Roe v. Wade goes away, some of that progress will likely be reversed, which could slow economic growth more broadly.

The research: Abortion access allows young women to delay becoming mothers, making it more likely that they will attend and finish college and start careers, a host of studies have found.

  • "Whether and under what circumstances to become a mother is the single most economically important decision most women will make in their lifetimes," says Caitlin Knowles Myers, an economist at Middlebury College, widely recognized as a leading scholar on this issue.
  • There's little disagreement on this among economists, Myers told the New Yorker this week.

She summarized the scholarship on the economic consequences of abortion access in an amicus brief filed by 154 economists to the Supreme Court last year, citing studies that found:

  • Legalization increased women's labor force participation, particularly Black women.
  • Young Black women who used abortion to delay motherhood for just one year realized an 10% increase in wages later in the careers.
  • The benefits to children (a majority of women who obtain abortions have children) are vast: a reduction in poverty and death rates, as well as the use of welfare benefits.

Key point: 49% of women who obtain an abortion are living below the federal poverty level, and 26% earn only slightly more than that, according to the most recent available data from the Guttmacher Institute.

To understand the impact of abortion on women's financial lives, economists and advocates point to a landmark study, published in 2020, that compared the finances of women who accessed abortion to those who just missed the gestational cutoff and instead carried their pregnancy to term.

  • The women who carried their babies to term experienced a large increase in serious financial difficulties — including an 80% increase in bankruptcies, evictions and tax liens.
  • A majority of the women who were turned away for an abortion said travel and costs were causes of their delay.

The other side: Opponents argue that abortion is morally wrong, and that no benefits outweigh those costs.

  • Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito does not substantively address economic questions in his leaked draft opinion.
  • Some argue that birth control affords women the same economic freedoms. Even with birth control, however, about 45% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. And 42% of those end in abortion, according to the most recent data.

The bottom line: Janet Yellen, the U.S. Treasury Secretary and a labor economist who knows all this research, summed it up earlier this week.

  • Eliminating a woman's right to seek an abortion, she said, would have "very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades."
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