The US Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, ending the constitutional right to abortion, will set women back by decades. Economic gaps will widen: Those who can afford to travel will continue to find the terminations they need in order to live healthy lives, study and work — but the most vulnerable will not.
We know this, because multiple studies have told us so, over decades. And yet still the data and its implications are in dispute.
To find out more about the the link between reproductive rights and women’s advancement, the post-Roe debate and its consequences, I spoke to Caitlin Myers, professor of economics at Middlebury College and one of the economists behind an amicus brief filed to the Supreme Court in 2021 that makes the case and highlights decades of research.
Clara Ferreira Marques: Proponents of abortion restrictions — including the State of Mississippi — argue that women can thrive without abortion rights. Your work suggests the exact opposite.
Caitlin Myers: It’s been deeply disappointing to see the court assert that it’s hard to know what impact abortion has had on people’s lives. In fact, this is a question that has been extensively studied, and on which there is broad, rigorous and convergent literature.
We have answers to these questions thanks to situations in which there has been a sudden change in people’s access to abortion, which afford us an opportunity to compare what happens to a group that’s experiencing a change in access and another group that is not — natural experiments. The first really significant one came in the early 1970s, when five states and the District of Columbia legalized abortion several years in advance of the Roe decision. You can look in the data and see the immediate effect on people’s lives. Economists studying the era estimated it reduced the fraction of women who became teen moms by a third, and the fraction of women who married as teens by a fifth.
If they do use abortion to prevent an unwanted birth, what happens? Well, they’re way more likely to go to college, they’re way more likely to finish college, they’re way more likely to enter professional or managerial occupations. They earn more, they avoid poverty — and not only for themselves, but for the children they go on to have.
CFM: There’s the years-long Turnaway Study too, which tracked and compared the fates of a group of women who sought abortions, some of who received them and some of whom were turned down because of clinic policies on gestational age limits.
CM: I’ll confess that I was initially skeptical of this research design. What were the circumstances that caused somebody seeking an abortion to be a little bit too late? Maybe that person was already experiencing greater poverty, greater instability, so their outcomes would have looked worse anyway? But the researchers actually successfully addressed that concern, making this a really compelling study. The researchers adopted a clever strategy by taking these women and matching them to their Experian credit reports, a very objective measure of their financial circumstances. If my concern was founded, then what we would have seen was the two groups already looking different, but that was not the case at all. Their financial circumstances were similar right up to the pivotal moment when they experienced an unintended pregnancy and sought an abortion.
The large financial impact on women who were turned away is remarkably clear. They experienced about an 80% increase in adverse credit events like bankruptcy, compared to the women who weren’t. It’s a compelling result though not a particularly surprising one, because we’ve long known how closely tied childbearing is to women’s economic fortunes.
CFM: The economic impact of restrictions is even more pronounced, of course, for the most vulnerable.
CM: One of the most important things to understand is that reversing Roe isn’t eliminating abortion access. It’s creating tremendous inequalities in abortion access. What is going to happen is that there will be large numbers of women seeking abortions who are going to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to reach the providers that remain. You’ll see women flooding out of ban states in search of abortions they need. But not everyone can do that.
We’ve had several recent natural experiments that have led us to estimate how women respond to travel distance. The first one occurred in Texas when half of their providers closed overnight in 2013 in response to a state regulation, another in Wisconsin. I would project about three-quarters of people for whom bans increase travel distance are still going to find a way to get there. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s incredibly important to their lives. About a quarter won’t, and that quarter will be the most vulnerable, most marginalized, most disadvantaged. They will disproportionately be young, and disproportionately be women of color. They’re going to be trapped, and it’s that trapped group that really bears the burden of the Roe reversal.
CFM: Given the wealth of evidence, why has the social and economic impact so often been overlooked? Why is the State of Mississippi able to say that women can have it all, when they so obviously cannot?
CM: Perhaps part of what’s going on is the inability to imagine what it is to be a poor woman in America, and particularly a poor woman of color, in the Deep South, parenting children. Mississippi asserted that advances in public policy now afforded women the opportunity to almost effortlessly balance motherhood with their economic lives. Mississippi and their advocates told stories, for instance pointing to Justice Amy Coney Barrett [a mother of seven], to the attorney general of Mississippi [Lynn Fitch, a mother of three] as examples of women who were both mothers and managing highly successful and demanding careers. I thought that was just so jaw-droppingly blind to the realities of class.
I was raised by a single mother in the rural deep South who struggled to make ends meet. In my early 30s, I had two young children and my husband died in a car accident. I suddenly found myself a single mother, like my mom had been. Except it wasn’t the same — because I was a professional woman with the income to hire a nanny. I could afford high-quality, flexible childcare. And as awful as my husband’s death was, from an economic and life perspective, having those financial resources made all the difference. You have to recognize the incredible difference between a working mother with financial resources, and one without. People making [the Mississippi] arguments just don’t understand that a poor woman working shifts can’t afford a nanny, or $10,000 of daycare a year.
People can disagree about ethics, but reasonable people cannot disagree about how inextricably linked motherhood and women’s economic lives are. And because it was an inconvenient fact, the court just wanted to ignore it. When 150 economists, leading names in our field, came forward with ample scientific evidence, that was completely ignored in the majority opinion. It’s really distressing to me, because I believe in evidence-based policy.
CFM: Economics can also be part of the solution here, preventing the need for abortions in the first place and limiting the damaging consequences for women forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
CM: There are a lot of reasons women obtain abortions, and they’re not all economic. But many people are seeking abortions because they are economically fragile, concerned that they cannot support a child, often another child. These are people intimately familiar with how frayed America’s social safety net is. And the policies that we could enact to support them are also the policies that would help support the women who are going to have children as a result of these bans. They include, first of all, expanding access to leave, and particularly to paid leave. Expanding access to health care, expanding access to childcare. When I look to direct financial support, I would point to the enormous successes of the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) and child tax credits, so there’s a need to continue and to expand those programs.
But I would also emphasize that most of our investments in the social safety net in the last 30 years have really been focused on the working poor, and have not reinforced the poorest of the poor, who aren’t working. When a woman has a newborn, it’s a time when it’s really difficult to work. Welfare benefits to vary state by state, but in almost all they are laughably inadequate. If a woman lives in Mississippi and is thinking about going on welfare to support herself and a newborn for a while when she can’t work, her maximum monthly benefit, to support a family of three, is $260. If she’s having another child, Mississippi also has a family cap. The state should instead be looking at anti-poverty programs, paid leave, investments in early childhood education. All of these can support poor families.
CFM: Do you see a wider economic impact, if people and companies choose to position themselves because of states’ policies on abortion?
CM: I hear a lot of liberals in the northeast, where I live, predicting that people are going to start relocating in response to the bans. I think it remains to be seen. I’m certainly not so sure. As somebody who comes from rural Deep South, I feel like they’re not entirely cognizant of the fact that lots of people in places with bans support them. And for a company to think about relocating, that could be very politically divisive and difficult. My observation is a lot of companies just seem to want to stay as far away from this as possible. So far, the only companies that have really come out and supported travel to obtain abortions, they are talking about salaried workers with benefits — that’s not the group that can’t get out. They might appreciate the help, but the people who can’t get out are the poorest of the poor. Is Walmart going to offer travel benefits for its part-time, hourly workers? Is McDonald’s?It’s similar for women choosing where to live. Abortion, by its nature, isn’t something that women generally plan for. It’s an unintended pregnancy or tragic news of a fetal abnormality — you weren’t planning for it. Perhaps, however, if the end of Roe also severely limits effective care for miscarriages and pregnancy complications, then this might make a difference to women’s locational decision. There’s a lot of fear about how this might constrain medical care for pregnant women experiencing complications, and I think if people’s worst fears come true, it could become a lot riskier to be a pregnant woman in the Deep South.
CFM: We talk a lot about the economic impact on mothers, but what about the impact on their existing and future children?
CM: Well, the best way is to think about it is very carefully, because this is where the ethical considerations become complicated and contested. First, a little over half of women seeking abortions are already parenting children. Those children are directly impacted by their mother and their family’s economic fortunes. As are the children that these women may eventually go on to have when they’re more financially and economically stable. And we do know that access to abortion reduced child poverty in the 70s and 80s.
The reason I say this is tricky is because abortion access reduces child poverty by reducing the number of children born into poverty. I don’t want to argue against those children being born. Instead, I’d argue that all children deserve to be wanted.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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