Jul 5, 2022 - Economy

Economists rush to understand the post-Roe world

Illustration of a pillar or column in the shape of a question mark.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Economists are racing to study the impact of the Supreme Court's decision overturning the right to abortion. They're examining the fallout on women's lives across a range of factors from health to finances.

Why it matters: There's a raft of research on the impact of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the work didn't get seriously underway until the late 1980s. Now, because of advances in technology and research methods — and because the profession has evolved to study "women's issues" — researchers will move more quickly.

  • Their studies can help policymakers and healthcare providers adjust to the post-Roe landscape.

Zoom out: About half the states in the country are expected to ban or heavily restrict abortion; the rest won't. That's precisely the kind of natural experiment economists like — where the cause is clear and they can examine the effect.

  • This kind of real-world-based methodology emerged after Roe, as the profession as a whole moved away from theoretical research. (Perhaps most famously Nobel-prize winner David Card and Alan Krueger looked at what happened after one state raised the wage floor and its neighbor did not.)
  • This "credibility revolution" fueled the rise of abortion study, said Caitlin Knowles Myers, an economist at Middlebury College known for her work on abortion.

What they're saying: "What we're looking at is a natural experiment of a magnitude we haven't seen since the Roe era," said Myers.

  • She's been deluged with requests from social scientists looking for help accessing data. "My email is absolutely flooded," she said.
  • "Everyone under the rainbow is going to be publishing on this," said Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation.

What's next: Researchers are now crafting studies and gathering data to understand: What happens to abortion rates? Are women still able to access care? How far will they travel to get it? Will there be more second trimester abortions because it takes longer to find a provider?

  • Some of this work was already underway after Texas passed its restrictive SB 8 law. And even before, over the years, as states enacted so-called TRAP laws that made it harder to access care.
  • Researchers will also study the health fallout for women, watching maternal mortality and pregnancy-related disability.

Economists will, of course, also look at economics. Some household financial impact will happen quickly.

  • For example, pregnancy can force women out of work, and have an immediate effect on families. The NYT profiles a bookkeeper in Texas who was earning $35/hour, but couldn't access an abortion in Texas. Pregnancy complications forced her out of work. She now relies on a charity program for help.
  • Other economic outcomes on labor force participation, earnings and career advancements will take longer to unspool, said David Slusky, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, who studied the effects of COVID clinic shutdowns on women and is now using the same methodology to look at Dobbs.

The bottom line: In its majority opinion the Supreme Court said it was hard to assess the effect of abortion on the lives of women, he said.

  • "That's not true. Economists have done it," he said. And they'll do it again.
Go deeper