The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Economists can tell you that restricting abortion access restricts women’s lives

Activists rally outside the Supreme Court on Nov. 1. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Caitlin Myers is the John G. McCullough Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.

Members of the economics profession were silent in 1973 when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, we were silent again in 1992 when the Court reaffirmed that decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and we have largely remained silent in major cases concerning abortion since. Perhaps this seems unremarkable — what do economists know about constitutional law or when life begins? But we actually do know a whole lot about one key issue in these cases: the causal effects of abortion access on people’s lives.

On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case that could decide the fate of Roe and the future of abortion access. In this case, Mississippi and its supporters assure the Court that “there is simply no causal link between the availability of abortion and the ‘capacity of women to act in society.’” Perhaps this was the breaking point for economists, as, in response to this unfounded assertion, more than 150 of us finally weighed in and filed an amicus brief with the Court to share what we know.

Becoming a mother is one of the most economically important decisions a woman faces. If she chooses to become a parent, she can expect her earnings to be reduced by more than one-third, while new fathers’ earnings decline only slightly. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and 81 percent of workers lack formal paid leave even as they face median child-care costs of $10,400 per year for an infant. This assumes parents can even obtain reliable child care, something many struggle to do.

Millions of Americans experience an unintended pregnancy, and at current rates, about one in four women will obtain an abortion in their lifetime. Seventy-five percent are low-income, 59 percent are already mothers and 55 percent are experiencing disruptive life events such as losing a job. We don’t need to guess what happens to them when they encounter obstacles to obtaining the abortions they want: we have solid scientific evidence.

As this year’s Nobel Prize in economics demonstrated, economics has undergone a methodological revolution that uses “natural experiments” to provide credible evidence on questions about cause and effect. Natural experiments are situations in which events have produced random assignment of treatment akin to that in randomized controlled trials. For instance, we can observe the natural experiment arising from the pre-Roe repeal of abortion bans in several states to measure the effects of abortion legalization, and we can observe the natural experiment that took place when a 2013 Texas law closed half of the state’s abortion clinics to measure the effects of increased travel distance to clinics on the incidence of abortion.

These natural experiments allow us to peer into alternate worlds where abortion is less available, and the resulting evidence is that women’s lives look very different there. The legalization of abortion caused dramatic decreases in births in the 1970s. And it was expanded access to abortion — rather than expanded access to the birth control pill — that allowed women to begin delaying motherhood and marriage, reducing the number of teen mothers by one-third and teen brides by one-fifth.

Not surprisingly, abortion access still matters today. When travel distances to abortion clinics increase to 100 miles, more than 1 in 5 people seeking abortions are unable to reach a provider, and most give birth as a result. Given the outsize role motherhood plays in women’s economic fortunes, it’s not surprising that the effects of abortion access reverberate beyond unplanned births. Access to abortion has been found to increase women’s educational attainment, labor force participation, entrance into professional occupations and earnings, and to decrease financial stress and poverty for women and their families. A study using Experian credit reports finds women who were turned away from an abortion clinic on account of arriving just past a gestational limit experience an 81 percent increase in records related to bankruptcies, evictions and court judgments compared to women who arrived just under the limit and were provided abortions.

Now that economists are no longer silent, what we can tell you about abortion is that there is absolutely a causal link between abortion access and women’s lives. Period. Whatever one personally thinks about abortion, it is absurd to suggest Roe could be overturned without drastic consequences.