On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that had secured the federal right to obtain an abortion.
Now a political earthquake is likely to ensue.
Abortion protections have been in place since the court’s decision in 1973, and polls show roughly two-thirds of Americans think it should stay that way. Yet the explosive opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization invalidates Roe and leaves abortion laws up to states. About half of states plan to partially or fully ban abortions, which is bound to generate storms of protest.
There will also be stark financial implications for many women who want to end a pregnancy but find they can’t. “What we’re going to see is a shock to poverty and inequality for poor women, Black women, young women in the Deep South,” economist Caitlin Myers told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview, before the June 24 decision came down. “What we will see are poor, vulnerable women, many of whom are already parenting, having children that they do not feel prepared for and suffering financial shocks as a result.”
Myers organized more than 150 economists and other researchers who filed an amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson, which began in Mississippi in 2018 when the state legislature banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. There were prompt legal challenges, and the Supreme Court heard the case last December. With the court overturning Roe, it won’t make abortion illegal everywhere, but will leave the decision up to states. Some states are ready to impose bans much stricter than the Mississippi law.
The economists’ brief summarized the findings of more than 60 studies from the last 50 years on how abortion access has affected the financial well-being of women and their families. About half of all women who get an abortion are already living below the poverty line, and many of the rest are lower-income people. More than half already have children, so they’re not seeking an abortion because they’re opposed to starting a family. Stressful economic circumstances are often their dominant concern.
While there are obvious moral arguments against abortion, it may also be morally dubious to ban abortions and effectively impose financial hardship on reluctant mothers. Research shows that abortion protections afforded by Roe have helped reduce teenage motherhood by 34% and teen marriage by 20%. That has allowed more young women to complete high school, attend college and establish professional careers. People who go further in school have higher lifetime earnings, in general. By most metrics, the improved outcomes are more pronounced for Black women than for whites, which suggests Black women would suffer more from a new set of bans than white women would.
“Some of the financial instability that these women experience, it is severe, it can last for years,” Myers told Yahoo Finance. “We do see some evidence of recovery, particularly at about five years out. But then there are other components of the shock, for instance, shocks to the probability that these women complete their desired education, that they finish high school, that they finish college, that they enter a professional occupation. Those shocks appear to be much more permanent. And they can have long run effects on the probability that women live in poverty.”
Doctors perform about 800,000 abortions in the United States each year. Despite the new abortion bans on the way, most women seeking an abortion in the United States will still be able to get one by traveling to a state that allows them if they live in one that doesn’t. But some women who live in an anti-abortion state won’t have the means to travel for the procedure, and researchers estimate that overall, 10% to 15% of women who want an abortion won’t be able to get one. So the total number of abortions might decline by 100,000 per year, or a little more.
That may not sound like a lot, but women who can’t afford to travel out of state are generally in tough financial circumstances already. They’re unlikely to be able to afford $10,000 or more per year for child care so they can work after the child is born. They’re at risk of falling into or remaining in the poverty trap Roe has helped some women avoid.
States that do enact abortion bans can put programs into place that would help keep new mothers afloat, such as child-care and health-care subsidies and more generous welfare programs. But they seem unlikely to, given that virtually all the states likely to enact bans have Republican governors or legislatures that tend to oppose well-funded social programs. Of the 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid, as the Affordable Care Act allows them to do, for instance, 10 also have abortion bans on the books or in the works, including Florida and Texas, the most populous anti-abortion states. Abortion opponents who think they've won a historic victory should consider the women who will lose from the decision.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story first published on June 3, 2022.
This post, originally published on June 3, has been updated to reflect Friday's Supreme decision.