The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four in five U.S. women never had to navigate the pre-Roe world

Roe v. Wade was in long enough that almost no American woman of child-bearing age experienced life before it

Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 abortion case, left, and her attorney Gloria Allred hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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For more than a fifth of the country’s existence, the right to obtain an abortion was established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Its overturning last week has prompted a number of analyses about the current court’s willingness to upend precedent, given that history. But the decision also means that American women who have not had to consider whether abortion is legal are suddenly faced with the possibility that it isn’t.

Census Bureau data show that only about 1 in 5 American women were old enough to have had to make decisions about pregnancies before Roe being decided. For every other woman, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Friday introduces a previously unknown set of concerns.

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The most recent year for which we have a breakdown of the U.S. population by age is 2020. Since then, of course, the number of older American women has declined and the number of younger women has increased, so, if anything, the numbers that follow from analyzing that data are overly conservative.

We can break the population into five groups. One is men and boys, who are less directly affected by Dobbs — though, obviously, still affected. We’re going to set them aside.

Then there are four groups of women and girls, delineated by two sets of numbers. The first is the 1973 Roe decision. The second is the boundary of reproductive age, for which we’ll defer to the United Nations’ 15-to-49 window.

In 2020, about 30 million girls were under the age of 15, 18 percent of the total American female population. An additional 70.4 million — 42 percent of the population — were in the childbearing window in 2020 and were born in 1973 or later. Then there are those who were under age 15 when Roe was decided — 32 million women making up about a fifth of the total.

Only 35 million women in America were old enough to be within the childbearing window or older in 1973. That’s about a fifth of the population of female Americans.

The ruling in Dobbs does not immediately make abortion illegal across the United States. Instead, it allows states to restrict or ban the procedure, which a number of states have already done. The Washington Post is tracking laws that pertain to abortion, including “trigger” laws — passed to go into effect should Roe be overturned — that are going to come into effect.

The Census Bureau data allow us to figure out where women in the 15-to-49 age range live. More than a quarter of that population lives in states that have banned or will soon ban or mostly ban abortion. About 8 percent live in states that are likely to impose limits.

That’s about 26 million American women who have never lived in a world where Roe wasn’t in effect who will now live or may soon live in states where abortion is limited by law.

An understandably jarring shift for many.

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