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Overturning Roe v. Wade would set women back decades, damage economy, experts say

Kyra Anderson of Arlington protested at a 2019 State House rally supporting abortion rights. Studies show the existence of a “motherhood penalty” — a financial hit to women who have children.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court decided nearly 50 years ago that women had a right to an abortion, with the justices in the majority — some of them conservative, all of them male — specifically highlighting how a lack of reproductive freedom could hamper women’s lives and careers.

“The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent,” the justices wrote. “Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.”

In the five decades since then, a body of research has proven those words prescient, showing that the decision has significantly improved the economic prospects of women by increasing their presence in the workforce, boosting their wages, and making it more likely they finish college and less likely they face the financial hardships that often come from an unplanned pregnancy.

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But the continuation of those gains is threatened by the likelihood the Supreme Court will overturn Roe in the coming days, ushering in a new reality where abortions will be banned or nearly banned in about half the US states. That possibility threatens the economic gains the Supreme Court majority credited to Roe two decades later, when it wrote in Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992 that the right to an abortion had helped give women “the ability…to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation.”

If Roe is overturned, experts and advocates said that many women — especially women of color and those with low incomes — will take a significant economic hit, and the nation might as well. Existing state abortion restrictions already cost the economy an estimated $105 billion a year by, among other things, reducing the number of women who are working, according to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit advocacy group.

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“In 50 years we’ve come a long way, but we’re not quite there,” said Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of 9to5, a national organization advocating for economic security for women, particularly those of color. “This is definitely going to set us back a lot.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, an economist and former chair of the Federal Reserve, recently warned that overturning Roe “would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades.”

“It enabled many women to finish school. That increased their earning potential. It allowed women to plan and balance their families and careers,” she told the Senate Banking committee last month, days after the publication of a leaked draft majority Supreme Court opinion in a Mississippi abortion case that would overturn Roe. “There are many research studies ... looking at the economic impacts of access or lack thereof to abortion. And it makes clear that denying women access to abortion increases their odds of living in poverty or need for public assistance.”

Abortion opponents have questioned the extensive research about Roe’s economic impact, calling it inconclusive. And in the draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, he argued it was difficult for the court to assess “the effect of the abortion right on society and in particular on the lives of women.”

Experts who have studied the economic effects of abortion rights said the findings are conclusive.

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“We find clear evidence of economic harm when people are denied abortions,” said Diana Greene Foster, director of research at at the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California San Francisco and author of a landmark study. Overturning the federal right to abortion will cause additional financial hardship for women in states that ban the procedure, forcing them to travel hundreds of miles in many cases to obtain one, she said.

“It’s going to be a lot more expenditures and time off work and child care expense for people who can afford it to get an abortion somewhere else,” Foster said of women in those states. “But for people who can’t afford to do that, it’s going to be years of economic hardship.”

Although many studies have looked broadly at the effects of abortion on factors like fertility rates and women’s participation in the workforce, Foster said it’s difficult to study the direct financial impact on women of being denied an abortion. Women often seek an abortion when they’re concerned they don’t have enough money to raise a child, so it doesn’t make sense to compare them to a control group of women who go ahead with a pregnancy, presumably because those women feel more economically secure.

But Foster found a solution: Look at women who sought an abortion when their pregnancies were right around the time of a clinic’s gestational age limit on performing the procedure, either because of state laws or its own policies. Some of those women showed up just under the limit and received an abortion while others were just over the limit and were turned away.

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In what’s known as “The Turnaway Study,” Foster’s team recruited about 1,000 pregnant women from 30 facilities in 21 states from 2008 through 2010. The researchers followed the women ― those who had abortions and those who did not — for five years, with some participants dropping out of the study along the way. The data led to multiple research papers and found that the women denied abortions took an economic hit that lasted years.

“Before the pregnancies, these two groups of women were really similar,” said Sarah Miller, an assistant professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Michigan who collaborated with Foster on a study that factored in financial data from years of the participants’ credit reports. “Then, when the women were denied an abortion and ended up going on and giving birth, there was this kind of big spike in financial problems.”

Their paper, updated in January, found that the women who were unable to obtain an abortion had financial challenges that lasted through the five-year study period. They included a 78 percent increase in unpaid bills an 81 percent increase in negative credit report notations, like bankruptcies and evictions, compared with the women who were able to get an abortion.

“It really seemed like they were put on a different trajectory at this point and it was a persistently difficult financial trajectory for these women,” Miller said.

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The findings demonstrated the so-called “motherhood penalty,” a long-studied financial hit to women who have children. And the study is among several since the 1990s that show the negative economic impact when women have unplanned births.

“There is a mountain of evidence,” said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College, who got 153 other economists to sign on with her to an amicus brief they filed in the Mississippi case outlining the research. “It’s really mainstream, accepted facts.”

The brief was a rebuttal to one filed by a coalition of “pro-life feminist groups,” along with 240 women scholars and professionals who oppose abortion rights. They questioned the validity of the research and the statement by the court’s majority in the Casey decision that abortion rights had helped give women economic equality.

“The claims by the Casey plurality and abortion advocates that unrestricted access to abortion is a necessary condition and a major contributor to women’s economic and social advances simply cannot be demonstrated,” the coalition argued.

Mississippi officials, who are defending the state’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, made a similar argument to the court, saying that improvements in maternity leave and other social services have improved the economic landscape for women since 1973.

“Roe suggested that, without abortion, unwanted children could ‘force upon’ women ‘a distressful life and future,’ ” Mississippi state officials argued in a filing in the case. “But numerous laws enacted since Roe — addressing pregnancy discrimination, requiring leave time, assisting with child care, and more — facilitate the ability of women to pursue both career success and a rich family life.”

Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said many women don’t have access to benefits like paid maternity or paid time off to take care of a sick child, and services like child care often are unaffordable. And a majority of lawmakers in states likely to ban abortion, as well as Republicans in Congress who oppose abortion rights, oppose expanding government assistance for day care or requiring paid sick and family leave.

“We as a country have never invested in a comprehensive child care and early learning system that really meets the needs of moms and children, so it remains very challenging to work and have a family,” she said. “Having choices about that really makes a difference.”

The lack of social services is exacerbated for women of color, Chancey said.

“We already are in a crisis situation,” she said. “We have many working women, especially women of color, who work hourly low wage jobs and they have no access to paid leave.”

Miller said her study and others validated what researchers have found anecdotally from talking to women seeking abortions. They worry about a lack of government services and workplace benefits as well as not having enough money to raise an unplanned child.

“You can see why there are these financial struggles when there’s not a lot of clear areas of support for these additional family obligations,” she said. There are negative economic effects in making it difficult for women to control when, whether, and how they have their families.”

Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.