March 29, 2012 at 7:38 AM ET
A new study may add tinder to the debate over whether the federal government ought to require health insurance plans to pay for contraception. New research shows that access to birth control pills over the past 50 years has translated into higher pay and better careers for women.
After scrutinizing data from a multidecade survey, University of Michigan researchers determined that women who had access to birth control pills when they were in their late teens and early 20s tended to be better educated and better paid 20 years later compared to women who couldn’t get oral contraceptives. Women who had early access to the pill were making 8 percent more than those who didn’t.
“Arguably the pill had some pretty big benefits for these women,” said the study’s lead author Martha J. Bailey, an assistant professor of economics at the university. “I certainly would like an 8 percent pay raise.”
The new study, published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, used data from two long-term surveys: one that looked at health and another that looked at labor force outcomes. Both tracked women for decades.
The labor force study was started in 1968 and included 4,300 women who were between 14 and 24 at the time of their first interview. The women were reinterviewed every year until 2003.
Bailey and her colleagues were able to disentangle the impact of the pill from other factors, such as the women’s movement and equal opportunity laws, because many states in the 1960s and '70s only allowed women to get the pill on their own after their 21st birthday. Other states allowed women to get the pill when they turned 18.
So the researchers were able to compare the career trajectories and salaries of women who could get the pill at 18 versus those who had to wait until they were 21.
Data from the health study backed up the assumption that women between the ages of 18 and 21 were far more likely to get a prescription for the pill if they came from a state where they could legally get it on their own.
Early access to the pill changed many women’s life plans.
“Instead of deciding between dating and pursuing a career they could do both,” Bailey said.
The women who benefited the most from early access to the pill were those who came from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
“One thing I think is important to point out is that we didn’t see a change in the number of children these women had, but we did see changes in when they decided to have them,” Bailey said. “That slight delay in the birth of their first child translated into some pretty big gains in terms of lifetime earnings.”