The price of abortion curbs: Economists weigh in on U.S. debate

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 November 2021 13:41 GMT

A supporter of reproductive rights holds a sign outside the Texas State Capitol building during the nationwide Women's March, held after Texas rolled out a near-total ban on abortion procedures and access to abortion-inducing medications, in Austin, Texas, U.S. October 2, 2021. Picture taken October 2, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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In a debate marked by deep ideological and religious divides, economists urge policymakers to consider the financial cost of curbing women's abortion rights

* Supreme Court set to hear Texas law challenge this week

* In emotive debate, economists highlight financial costs

* Curbs hit women's earnings power, fuel poverty, they say

By Anastasia Moloney

Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Few subjects stir emotion, religious fervor and heated constitutional debate like abortion does in the United States.

But as Supreme Court justices prepare this week to hear challenges to a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on the procedure, economists are trying to steer the discussion towards the more practical issue of money.

For many women seeking an abortion, financial considerations also weigh heavily.

"Money was definitely on the top of my list, especially as I was already a mother and I couldn't take on the responsibility of affording another child," said Kenya Martin, 46, who had two abortions in Texas when she was in an abusive relationship.

As a former counselor in an abortion clinic in the state, Martin supported other women of color seeking a termination and is now a member of We Testify, an abortion testimony group that pays women for advocacy work.

"I didn't want to create a cycle of poverty ... I didn't want a life of struggle as a single mother," Martin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One in four American women will have an abortion by the age of 45.

Many, like Martin, are poor or already have children. Others say they cannot afford to start a family or do not want to interrupt their careers or education.

But women across the United States are facing more obstacles when making such decisions as Republican-led states, including Texas, pass new laws restricting abortion access.

Such measures bring economic hardships for many women and have wider financial implications that are too often opaqued by the deep ideological and religious divide on the issue, economists and abortion rights campaigners said.

"Only the scholars and advocates are looking at this from an economic point of view," said Yana Rodgers, a professor at Rutgers University's Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations.

"The main cost of being denied an abortion is that it impedes women's ability to fully engage in the labor market," she said.

RIPPLE EFFECT

Rodgers is among scores of economists and academics taking a stand in major abortion cases presented at the Supreme Court, including a case from the state of Mississippi known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization - an abortion clinic.

In September, 154 economists signed a 73-page "friend of the court" brief backing the clinic in Mississippi, where terminations are prohibited after 15 weeks. The Supreme Court is due to hear a challenge to that law on Dec. 1.

The case will give the justices, who hold a 6-3 conservative majority, an opportunity to scale back abortion rights that were guaranteed in the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

In their amicus brief to the top court, the economists said "abortion access continues to measurably impact women's lives," particularly for young and Black women.

Research cited in their submission found that when young women who got a legal abortion to delay an unplanned start to motherhood by just one year, they experienced an 11% increase in hourly wages later in their careers.

"So it dampens labor force participation, as well as their potential earnings," Rodgers said.

Another study they cited found that for young women who had an unplanned pregnancy, access to abortion increased the probability they finished college by nearly 20% and had a professional job by nearly 40%.

Mississippi's law is among a raft of Republican-backed abortion restrictions passed in recent years, with a record number - 106 - enacted across 19 states this year alone, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization.

Such restrictions that can deter and prevent women from getting an abortion include mandatory counseling, having to wait 24 hours before a second clinic visit, and reducing the number of weeks during which women can terminate a pregnancy.

In Texas, where the country's strictest abortion law took effect in September, terminations are banned - even for rape and incest victims - once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually at six weeks, and before many women know they are pregnant.

Kelsea McLain, who had an abortion at the age of 25 when she was struggling to get by, said even "if I did want to have children, I was in a situation where I was unemployed and unable to find a job".

"Abortion bans just have this ripple effect of also increasing the cost of abortion care and furthering people into poverty," said McLain, a We Testify member who works for The Yellowhammer Fund, an Alabama-based advocacy group that provides financial assistance to women who want to get an abortion.

LONG-TERM IMPACT

The financial consequences of laws limiting abortion access can be long lasting, according to a 2020 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

When new mothers pull back from the labor force it "can be a positive thing when it's a choice to focus more on the family and home," said Sarah Miller, lead study author and faculty research fellow at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

"But when that choice is taken away from women, there's going to be very big economic consequences that have a very big impact on labor supply and their earnings," said Miller, another of the economists who signed the Mississippi amicus brief.

Women refused abortions are more likely to spend years living in poverty than women who have terminations, experiencing a 78% rise in debt and an 81% increase in public records related to bankruptcies and evictions, the research found.

"There's a big spike in financial problems among the women who were denied the abortion, whereas the women who received it, it was basically flat," said Miller.

"The effects are quite persistent, women are still struggling financially for years," she added.

For poor and low-income women, that is even more the case, Martin said.

"I know first-hand why access to abortion is essential, especially for people of color or marginalized communities who may not have the resources to take care of another child or are being forced to parent when they never intended to."

Related stories:

What is Roe v Wade, and could a new case undo US abortion rights? (trust.org)

Where are the hotspots for abortion rights in 2021? (trust.org)

Poor, Black, Hispanic bear brunt of Texas abortion law (trust.org)

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney in Bogota; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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