Finance

Economists highlight how lack of abortion access sets women back

The US debate over abortion typically focuses on politics, ethics and religion — but rarely economics.

This week, more than 150 economists and researchers weighed in on how women will be affected if states such as Mississippi and Texas are allowed to put stringent new restrictions on the procedure. Their intervention is part of a brewing legal battle that has the potential to reshape abortion access nationwide nearly 50 years after the US Supreme Court enshrined the constitutional right to the procedure in Roe vs Wade.

The economists filed a brief in a court case originating in Mississippi, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is seeking to overturn Roe. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the Mississippi case on December 1, just months after refusing to stop a controversial “heartbeat bill” from taking effect in Texas.

The brief argues that access to abortion has had “significant impact on women’s wages and educational attainment, with impacts most strongly felt by black women”. If Roe is overturned, a state-by-state patchwork of abortion bans will block 120,000 women from reaching an abortion provider in the first year, they said.

Signatories include prominent figures in economics, including Claudia Goldin, Lawrence Katz, Francine Blau, Jonathan Gruber and Justin Wolfers.

“Ample evidence indicates that Roe is causally connected to women’s advancements in social and economic life,” the brief’s authors wrote. “If Roe and [Planned Parenthood vs Casey] were overturned, or significantly curtailed, it would have a significant and negative impact on women’s lives.”

Abortion restrictions have “real, concrete impacts” on women’s lives, said C. Nicole Mason, chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. They blunt their educational attainment, limit their wages, career options and labour force participation, and increase their risk of poverty.

There is also a cost for companies. Abortion restrictions have increased the distance women need to travel in the US to obtain the medical procedure, which may mean extra days off work. It also diminishes productivity because, as Mason noted, when “you’re thinking about this, you’re not doing your job”.

More than 50 companies, including Patagonia, Lyft, Atlassian and Stitch Fix, signed a letter on Tuesday that said abortion restrictions threaten “the health, independence and economic stability of our workers and customers . . . The future of gender equality hangs in the balance”. 

Laws limiting abortion access cost state and local economics $105bn a year by reducing women’s labour force participation and earnings, according to the Center on the Economics of Reproductive Health, a branch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“There are absolutely moral and ethical arguments that can be made for or against abortion access,” Mason said. “What we know less about — or what’s been made invisible by these other discussions — is the economic impact on women and their families.

“There’s a reluctance to talk about the economic case for expanding reproductive access, including abortion access,” she added. “But in this moment, we need to be looking at all the ways that limiting access impacts women and businesses and economies, so that we know the real and true, full impact.”

Economic arguments are irrelevant, even grotesque, to abortion opponents who view the practice as evil. But where they have engaged in economic debate, it is to attack studies that show US women have benefited financially and professionally from access to abortion.

A legal brief filed in July in the Mississippi case by 240 female professors, largely in law or medicine, criticised the findings of the influential Turnaway Study published in 2018. The study, conducted by a collaborative research group at the University of California-San Francisco, recruited nearly 1,000 women from 30 clinics across the US between 2008 and 2010.

Some obtained abortions, while others were turned away because of legal restrictions. Over the next five years the study found that women in the “turnaway” group, and their children, were more likely to live in poverty.

The brief’s authors argued the study’s sample was too small, that the comparison groups were insufficiently distinct, and that “claiming women have ‘relied’ upon abortion for their advancement ignores the simultaneity of legal, cultural, technological and other events affecting women over at least the last five decades”.

The brief filed by economists this week contested that assertion, saying the earlier brief “cherry-pick[ed] and critique[d] one early study and ignore[d] the body of evidence developed since”. They argued that advances in the field of “causal inference” had allowed researchers to identify and measure economic gains stemming from abortion, rather than other factors.

It also pointed out that claims in the Mississippi case related to the cost of birth control, expense of childcare and accessibility of parental leave policies were wrong.

The women surveyed in the Turnaway Study sought abortions for a mix of reasons, said Diana Greene Foster, who devised the study and authored a book on it: a lack of money, the pursuit of other goals, the certainty they could not provide a good life to a child. Years later, when researchers examined those outcomes, “that’s where the differences are in the people who were denied”.

“People understand what they’re doing when they make this decision,” she said.

University of Michigan economist Sarah Miller built on the Turnaway Study by examining credit reports for the study participants. While all the women had similar credit reports before their pregnancy, she found that the women who were denied an abortion experienced an increase in financial difficulties.

For those women, the amount of debt 30 days overdue rose to more than $1,700, a 78 per cent increase from the group’s average before pregnancy. The number of evictions, tax liens and bankruptcies rose 81 per cent.

Miller said she was unsurprised by the increase, but startled by its magnitude.

Economists largely ignored the impact of Roe until the 1990s, said Middlebury College economist Caitlin Knowles Myers. But once they began to study it, the evidence demonstrated that the widespread procedure had had far-reaching effects.

“A lot of the conflict and disagreement around abortion centres on ethical questions,” Myers said. “Economists don’t have any particular expertise on when life begins . . . What we offer the general public is the simple observation that access to abortion matters enormously to people’s lives.”

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