The Supreme Court’s expected reversal of Roe v. Wade and the abortion rights it provides threatens to roll back the economic and educational advances made by American women in the last 49 years.
Abortion rights have improved women’s ability to attain higher education. They’ve led to increased lifetime earnings. And they’ve given women more long-term financial stability.
The Supreme Court is well aware of these gains. A group of 154 economists and researchers highlighted them in a brief to the court as part of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Program case, which looks at abortion restrictions enacted in Mississippi. But the court apparently plans to overlook these gains ― and turn them back ― in a ruling anticipated in June that would end the constitutional right to an abortion.
The discussion around reproductive rights is often framed as part of a “culture war” between religious conservatives and secular liberals over nonmaterial concerns. A leaked draft majority opinion in the case, written by Justice Samuel Alito, largely focuses on a (dubious) history of abortion law in an attempt to show that legal abortion is not “deeply rooted” in the country’s “history and tradition” in his argument for overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
But as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen noted earlier this week, the right to have an abortion is also an economic issue.
The evidence of women’s economic gains following the national legalization of abortion in 1973 can be found in the economists’ friend-of-the-court (amicus curae) brief filed with the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case. The brief describes the findings of causal inference studies conducted since the Roe decision to show the positive economic effects the decision had on women’s lives.
“Studies show that in addition to impacting births, abortion legalization has had a significant impact on women’s wages and educational attainment, with impacts most strongly felt by Black women,” the brief states.
Black teenage women who had access to abortion services graduated from high school at a rate of 22% to 24% more and attended college by 23% to 27% more than Black teenage women who could not access those services, according to a 1996 research paper by economists Joshua Angrist and William Evans.
Follow-up studies found similar gains in women’s educational attainment and professional success.
Young women who delayed having a child by one year by having an abortion eventually saw an 11% increase in hourly wages, according to a 2019 study by economist Ali Abboud.
Similarly, the probability of graduating from college increased by nearly 20% and the probability of entering a professional field increased by 40% for young women who had an abortion after an unintended pregnancy, according to a 2021 study by economist Kelly Jones.
Young women who have an abortion after an unintended pregnancy before the age of 20 increase their earnings later in life by $11,000 to $15,000 per year, according to Jones’ study. Though that finding shows positive improvement for all young women, the economic impact of access to an abortion for young Black women is “striking,” according to Jones’ study.
Young Black women who have an abortion after an unintended pregnancy from ages 15 to 23 saw their individual earnings increase by $23,200 to $28,000 per year and their family earnings increase by $48,000 to $52,000 per year.
The brief also cites the Turnaway Study, a well-known research paper on the different outcomes of women who were able to access abortion services and those who were turned away based on their arrival to a clinic after the law in their home state banned them from receiving an abortion. The study found that the average woman who was turned away from receiving an abortion saw a 78% increase in “past-due debt” and an 81% increase in “public records related to bankruptcies, evictions, and court judgments.”
“The financial effects of being denied an abortion are thus as large or larger than those of being evicted, losing health insurance, being hospitalized, or being exposed to flooding due to a hurricane,” the brief states about the findings of the Turnaway Study.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe next month, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion immediately. That means millions of women across the country will no longer have the access to abortion services that provided these material economic gains over the past 49 years. This will fall heaviest on the poorest and most economically at-risk women and their children. Nearly half of women seeking abortions are poor, 59% already have children and 55% had recently experienced a “disruptive life event,” such as a job loss or a death in the family.
“Causal inference tells us that abortion legalization has caused profound changes in women’s lives,” the economists’ amicus brief states. “But those changes are neither sufficient nor permanent: abortion access is still relevant and necessary to women’s equal and full participation in society.”