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Roe-v-Wade

Reproductive rights protesters rally outside a federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on May 3, 2022. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Overturning Roe Would Be an Economic Catastrophe for Women

Abortion rights are economic rights.

A leaked draft of a majority opinion authored by Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito strongly suggests that the court will rule to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the two landmark cases that have upheld the right to an abortion nationwide for the last half century. If the final ruling largely follows what is sketched out in the leaked draft, abortion services will be drastically curtailed, if not outright banned, in over half the country.

The fall of Roe will be an additional economic blow, as women in the 26 states likely to ban abortion already face an economic landscape of lower wages, worker power, and access to health care.

Abortion is often framed as a "culture-war" issue, distinct from material "bread and butter" economic issues. In reality, abortion rights and economic progress are deeply interconnected, and the imminent loss of abortion rights means the loss of economic security, independence, and mobility for millions of women. The fall of Roe will be an additional economic blow, as women in the 26 states likely to ban abortion already face an economic landscape of lower wages, worker power, and access to health care.

Women's economic lives, livelihoods, and mobility are at the heart of the reasoning to overrule Roe.

In the draft majority opinion, Justice Alito dismissed the argument in Casey that women had organized their lives, relationships, and careers with the availability of abortions services, writing "that form of reliance depends on an empirical question that is hard for anyone—and in particular, for a court—to assess, namely the effect of the abortion right on society and in particular on the lives of women." In fact, this empirical question has been definitively assessed and answered. A rich and rigorous social science literature has examined both the detrimental effect of a denied abortion on women's lives, as well as the individual and societal economic benefits of abortion legalization, as detailed in the thorough amicus brief filed in Dobbs on behalf of over 100 economists.

Some of the economic consequences of being denied an abortion include a higher chance of being in poverty even four years after; a lower likelihood of being employed full time; and an increase in unpaid debts and financial distress lasting years. Laws that restrict abortion providers, so-called "TRAP" laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers), have led to women in those states being less likely to move into higher-paying occupations.

On the flip side, environments in which abortion is legal and accessible have lower rates of teen first births and marriages. Abortion legalization has also been associated with reduced maternal mortality for Black women. The ability to delay having a child has been found to translate to significantly increased wages and labor earnings, especially among Black women, as well as increased likelihood of educational attainment. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen concluded that "eliminating the rights of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades."

The draft opinion of this overtly partisan Supreme Court ignores the rigorous data and empirical studies demonstrating the significant economic consequences of this decision. In doing so, it lays bare the cruel and misogynistic politics that motivate it. Justice Alito's dismissal of claims that forcing women to bear an unwanted pregnancy imposes a heavy burden is shockingly glib, as he simply asserts "that federal and state laws ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, that leave for pregnancy and childbirth are now guaranteed by law in many cases, that the costs of medical care associated with pregnancy are covered by insurance or government assistance…."

Every statement in this casual litany is wildly misleading. Women are still routinely fired for being pregnant, close to 9 in 10 workers lacked paid leave in 2020, the costs of maternity care with insurance have risen sharply and constitute a serious economic burden for even middle-income families. And many of the states certain or likely to ban abortion after the fall of Roe have not expanded Medicaid, leaving women without insurance facing much steeper costs—particularly in the immediate post-partum period. And, of course, our failed health care system often imposes the ultimate cost of all on pregnant women: The U.S. rate of maternal mortality, especially for Black women, ranks last among similarly wealthy countries. In short, the potential costs of bearing a child are high indeed, and it is women who should decide if and when they wish to shoulder them.


© 2021 Economic Policy Institute
Asha

Asha Banerjee

Asha Banerjee joined EPI’s research team as an economic analyst in 2021. She works on issues of budget, taxes, and government spending. Her research and advocacy seek to understand the persistent racial disparities and uneven economic outcomes from existing government programs, policies, and legislation in order to propose new ideas and solutions.

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