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How limiting abortion access hurts women financially

Overturning Roe v. Wade would force some women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term, affecting their education, career advancement, earning power and ability to build wealth.
Image: Student silhouette
Women who are denied abortions are often forced to cut short their education.Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images file

The leaked draft of an opinion that suggests the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade and its federal protection for access to abortion would put decades of gains made by women at risk — and it would mean dire economic consequences for some of them. 

In an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle on Tuesday, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., warned that forcing women to have and raise unplanned children would make it harder for women to pursue education, increase their incomes and build wealth. 

“Pregnancy and parenthood is an economic decision,” she said. “This is going to shape people’s economic opportunities.”  

Porter, a single mother herself, said the stakes of rolling back Roe v. Wade would be high not just for women but also for families, communities and the country. Child poverty would rise, public health services would be strained, and social resources would be stretched to their limits. 

Caitlin Knowles Myers, a professor of economics and co-director of the Middlebury Initiative for Data and Digital Methods at Middlebury College, said legalizing abortion nationwide in 1973 was a historic inflection point. It ushered in decades of individual and societal benefits that improved the educational and economic fortunes of an entire generation, she said. 

“Legalization of abortion had huge effects on the ages at which women became mothers and the circumstances in which they became mothers,” she said.

The advantages of legal abortion were especially pronounced for historically marginalized populations, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The nonprofit organization found that high school graduation and college attendance rates for Black women rose after abortion was legalized nationwide. 

Based on historical data, the Guttmacher Institute, a health research and policy organization in support of reproductive rights, said 1 in 4 U.S. women will have abortions. The organization said that close to 60 percent of women who have abortions already have at least one child and that 60 percent are in their 20s. 

Myers estimated that U.S. women would be unable to terminate 75,000 unplanned pregnancies in the first post-Roe year alone. 

“Affluent women will find a way to make these trips” to states where abortion remains accessible, she said. “We’re very likely to have an increase in births to the poorest and most vulnerable families.” 

A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper that overlaid credit reporting data on a research project dubbed the Turnaway Study, a University of California, San Francisco, project that studies the effects of unwanted pregnancies, compared women who successfully sought abortions with those who were denied the procedure. The economic disparities between the two groups were stark, said the lead author of the paper, Sarah Miller, an assistant professor of business, economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.

“Our results suggest that being financially resilient, being economically self-sufficient, is going to be a lot harder if you can’t control the timing of when you have children,” Miller said. 

The amount of past-due debt incurred by the “turned away” women jumped by 78 percent compared to the average they owed before they gave birth, the report found. Negative incidents on the women’s credit reports, such as bankruptcies and evictions, jumped by 81 percent. 

Miller’s research also found that women who were denied abortions continued to struggle five years later, in large part because of the compounding impact of unexpected pregnancies on women’s ability to complete their educations and establish careers. 

When women leave the workforce to have children, they sacrifice opportunities to build wealth that many will never be able to reclaim. “Becoming a mother remains the single largest determinant of a woman’s labor market circumstances,” Myers said.

Economists say a lack of paid leave for new mothers and the lack of affordable child care are two big hurdles that prevent them from rejoining the labor market, barriers that many of the young, often poor women seeking abortions may find insurmountable. 

The disadvantages of being effectively locked out of the labor market for months or years are borne unequally across ethnic groups. Data from the online compensation research platform PayScale found that Black women attain an average earnings peak of $61,100, compared with $68,800 for white women — both of which fall far below the $104,100 peak earnings of white men.  

“Often, people seeking abortions are seeking them precisely because they’re not in a place financially or in their work where they can support a child. You’re really looking at the potential for compounding disadvantages there,” said Emily Martin, the vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“We know that the wage gap adds up to really big numbers over the course of women’s lifetimes. … Women have much less in savings [and] are much less likely to have significant retirement savings,” Martin said. “It’s both a big economic impact on women themselves but also on entire families and their children and their opportunities for success.” 

And these women largely bear these burdens alone. 

Miller’s research found that the fathers of children born to women who were denied abortions contributed very little financially. Many women reported receiving no financial support; overall, the average support was a mere $20 a month.  

Just under 10 percent of the women in the study who were denied abortions were married, and the data showed that most didn’t live with the fathers of their children. In fact, Miller’s research found that those new mothers were also less likely to live with their own families.

“It did look like they maybe had been previously living with roommates and family” and subsequently moved out after giving birth, “which you imagine could result in much higher housing costs and housing instability,” she said.

Housing security is crucial for a family’s short-term financial stability, and can also have a profound impact on the health and well-being of children, as well as their financial futures. Economic stability is especially fragile for mothers living in states with weak social safety nets, Miller said. 

“We found in these low-generosity states that the financial problems were a lot higher for the women who were denied abortions,” Miller said. The financial struggles were documented through higher reliance on welfare programs like the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program for low-income women and mothers of young children.  

Food insecurity is far more common among single mothers. According to the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, about 11 percent of U.S. families experienced food insecurity in 2019, but roughly 29 percent of households headed by single mothers were food-insecure, while about 15 percent of households headed by single fathers were. Hunger rose as income fell: About 43 percent of single mothers and their kids who lived near or below the poverty line were food-insecure.

“A child growing up in poverty is growing up in a situation where day-to-day decisions become stressful and uncertain,” which can hurt children’s well-being and development, Myers said.

Such circumstances don’t affect women simply at the individual level. The individual data points become statistics that, when multiplied by tens of thousands, have profound implications for the financial security, educational attainment and physical well-being of a country.  

Research from The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, for example, found that the economic fallout of existing reproductive health restrictions is already costing employers and government institutions. The organization determined that state economies incur a $105 billion annual cost because of such barriers.

The federal tab could be even higher with a growing number of poor, uninsured families trapped in a cycle of intergenerational poverty, Porter, the House member from California, warned on MSNBC. “Abortion is an economic issue,” she said.