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Abortion rollback risks erasing decades of economic gains for US women

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Courthouse in response to leaked draft of the Supreme Court's opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, in Los Angeles, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Overturning Roe v. Wade risks widening economic inequality in the U.S., threatening decades of gains for women in places where abortion could be all but banned.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court confirmed that an initial draft overturning the 1973 Roe ruling, leaked to Politico, was authentic although not the final ruling. The draft would strike down the half-century federal precedent that had given women the right to seek an abortion and would allow states to make their own laws and restrictions.

The leak ignited protests across the country and pushed the issue to front of the Democratic Party’s agenda. Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a fiery speech accusing Republicans of attacking women’s rights Tuesday night at a conference by abortion-rights group Emily’s List that was scheduled before the leak.

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“How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body?,” Harris said. “How dare they? How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future?”

Access to abortion is credited with expanding womens’ roles in economies and labor markets around the world. The ability to access safe abortions is what keeps many American women from falling into poverty, according to decades of research.

Lower-income Black and Hispanic women are disproportionately affected by restrictions, as they’re more likely to lack the funds and ability to get time off work to travel out-of-state for care.

“It’s just hard to overstate how far-reaching the effects are likely to be,” said Jason Lindo, professor of economics at Texas A&M University in College Station. “The evidence is very clear that this is going to lead to negative outcomes on things like women’s educational attainment, women’s labor force participation and measures of economic success.”

If Roe were overturned, the impact would be immediate for women seeking an abortion in states that move to limit or ban access. But the economic fallout would last a lifetime, weighing on personal finances, states’ social safety nets and potentially labor market participation.

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Women represent 57% of the workforce and young women represent more than 57% of college graduates, said Anne Clark Wolff, founder of investment bank Independence Point Advisors.

“Upending constitutional rights that have been protected for decades will harm all of us -- not just women,” she said.

Red-Blue Divide

More conservative states are expected to ban or severely restrict abortion while liberal regions will likely keep abortion rights in place.

In effect, 26 states where about 36 million women live will move to ban or severely restrict abortion, if Roe is overturned, according to Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood. The ruling would force some women into unplanned pregnancies while others would turn to higher-risk options.

“No decision of a court can stop abortion. Period,” she said.

Texas provides a glimpse into a post-Roe world for women across the country -- and the financial implications. In September, a law went into effect prohibiting abortions after embryonic cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks and typically before a woman knows she’s pregnant.

Since then, the majority of women seeking an abortion have traveled out-of-state for care, according to Anna Rupani, executive director of Fund Texas Choice, which provides funding for women seeking abortions out of state.

“A lot of our clients are working paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to take time off of work to get an abortion, or they take time off and don’t get paid,” Rupani said. More than half the organization’s clients already have children and don’t have the finances to have more, she said.

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Escaping an Abortion Desert Is Harder Than Crossing State Lines

Travel costs for women have risen more than 30% as clinics in Texas and nearby states have filled up and clients are regularly traveling more than 1,000 miles for an abortion, to California or New York, according to the group.

Meanwhile, for women who are forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy, the result can be a lifetime of poverty, according to Diana Foster, director of research at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a program within the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco.

“This is not good for the economy,” she said. “You’re removing women from the labor market, and forcing women to raise children who do not have enough resources to provide housing and food.”

About half of those seeking to end a pregnancy already live below the federal poverty line, with three-quarters struggling to pay for basics like food and housing, according to the Turnaway study, the largest economic study on the financial impacts of abortion, which Foster led.

Five years after being denied an abortion, women are four times as likely to live below the federal poverty line as those who received the procedure, the study showed.

Another study found that a decade after being denied an abortion, they had higher bankruptcies, evictions and lower credit scores. That’s according to a January research paper from authors including Sarah Miller at the University of Michigan.

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Opponents of abortion say providing access has its own economic cost because it means a smaller population and labor pool. It’s reduced the country’s population by about 11%, curbing gross domestic product by $1.17 trillion and weakening innovation, according to John Mueller, who researches the intersection of economics and religion at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based conservative institute.

However, abortion access doesn’t necessarily have an impact on population growth: Many women seeking an abortion end up having children later in life when they’re financially prepared for it, according to 2021 research published in the Contraception journal.

Widespread abortion restrictions would disproportionately hurt women of color, who are already further behind their White counterparts in the U.S. Even in today’s tight labor market, unemployment among Black women is roughly double the national average.

Black and Hispanic women are more likely to seek abortion and resources to fund care, and to live in states where abortion will be made illegal, meaning they’re more likely to suffer the economic consequences, according to Elizabeth Ananat, Professor of Women and Economics at Barnard College.

“We know that children who grow up in poverty earn less, end up more often involved in the justice systems, and have poorer outcomes in a number of measures,” she said. “Those are high-cost, long term outcomes for the economy.”

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