Abortion restrictions cost all Americans, not just women. (And we mean that literally.)

The consequences of abortion restrictions for women are clear. But regressing on abortion is a mistake the country collectively can’t afford.
Image: Pro-abortion protest
A woman dressed in a costume from "The Handmaid's Tale" silently protests during a rally to maintain abortion rights in Columbia, S.C. on May 21, 2019.Jeffrey Collins / AP file
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By Lynn Stuart Parramore

South Carolina is currently weighing a ban that would not even provide exceptions for grave birth defects. The Palmetto State joins a long list of conservative state legislatures that have passed draconian bans and restrictions on abortion or are considering them, without fully understanding the economic risks they are creating. The loss of reproductive rights would deliver a blow not only to women’s freedom but to the nation’s economic well-being.

Already in 2019, states including Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi have banned abortion at six weeks — when many women don’t even know they are pregnant. Additional states, including Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina and West Virginia also introduced six-week bans — but have not yet moved on them. Alabama meanwhile, has banned abortion nearly completely, even in cases of rape or incest.

Amid these sweeping challenges to Roe v. Wade, not enough attention has been paid to how economic stability suffers when women lose control of their reproductive lives.

Amid these sweeping challenges to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects women’s freedom of choice, not enough attention has been paid to how economic stability, vital to every other form of well-being from mental health to physical outcomes, suffers when women lose control of their reproductive lives.

Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended, with rates highest among women who have limited access to birth control or low incomes. These unintended pregnancies hold women back from educational attainment, research shows and prevents them from getting and keeping a job.

There is also evidence that women who are denied abortions — often known as turnaways by researchers — suffer more economic instability and poorer physical health compared to women who were able to get abortions. For example, a five-year longitudinal study found that the women denied abortions who gave birth had increased rates of poverty six months after denial, compared to those able to have the procedure. The turnaways’ hardship was long-lasting: They were more likely to be living in poverty four years later.

Some women can’t obtain abortions due to health issues, but most are denied because they reach the clinic too late. This can happen when they don’t realize they are pregnant in time or are delayed by burdensome travel to the facility or lack of funds to cover both the travel and procedure — which many insurance plans don’t cover. The cost can be prohibitive: The National Women’s Law Center reports that for more than half of women who do manage to get an abortion, the full cost is equal to more than one-third of their monthly income.

Researchers have found that years down the road, turnaways are more likely to be living in homes lacking sufficient money to cover food, housing and transportation. Their previous children tend to do worse in achieving key developmental milestones, such as language expression. “Diminished resources,” note the researchers, “may lead to slowed development” in existing children.

Releasing women from the perpetual cycle of pregnancy and childbirth is one of the great achievements of the 20th century. All society gained when women were freed to pursue their education and then bring their valuable skills to the workplace. With medical advances like the birth control pill, approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1960, and legal abortion, American women were able to participate fully in society for the first time in history.

Releasing women from the perpetual cycle of pregnancy and childbirth is one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

The modern workforce, which women began to enter en masse after World War II and in even greater numbers in the 1960s, can’t afford to lose half the talents of the population. Women’s robust participation in the economy, an abundance of research has shown, is linked to an increase in the overall standard of living. The International Monetary Fund finds that policies that block women’s participation hamper everything from innovation to productivity.

This is also a key factor in how much men get paid: More productivity means higher incomes for all workers. McKinsey management consulting finds, for example, that if women participated equally in the economy, with access to things like equal pay, equal access to jobs at all levels, and adequate protection from discrimination, it would add $12 trillion to global growth.

The Guttmacher Institute notes that planning, delaying and spacing births can help women achieve their education and career goals. Delaying motherhood could can not only reduce pay gaps between working mothers and their childless peers, but can lessen women’s need for public assistance.

Consider, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis report that postponing the birth of a first child until age 31 significantly improves women’s earnings over a lifetime. From the business executive to the gig economy worker, women’s careers and job prospects depend on being able to plan for a major and expensive life event like having a child.

Many business leaders recognize this. In May, nearly 200 CEOs, including Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Peter T. Grauer of Bloomberg LP and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, signed a full-page New York Times ad declaring that abortion bans are bad for business: “Restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion,” the ad read, “threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers.”

Meanwhile, Netflix, Walt Disney and other film and TV companies have now vowed to boycott states that recently enacted extreme anti-abortion legislation. Such businesses understand that female workers need to be able to make choices on matters that impact their material, mental and physical well-being — and that of their families.

Businesses understand that female workers need to be able to make choices on matters that impact their material, mental and physical well-being — and that of their families.

And America’s business climate is often hostile to working mothers — which makes it particularly outrageous to demand that women bear children against their will. The United States is a global outlier in denying women paid maternity leave. American women are still widely considered “primary caregivers,” who bear more than their share of the burden of the early child care.

The nation lacks equitable parental leave policies that would bring fathers fully into the childcare equation — a situation that causes deep strain for women, who then suffer economic consequences when they must delay workplace reentry after having children and confront stymied career advancement or an inability to juggle full-time work with parenting.

Some conservative groups, unable to deny the hypocrisy of these arrangements, are now arguing for the better treatment of pregnant women in the workplace, declaring that women should be able to choose both success in the workplace and family.

What they don’t acknowledge, however, is that working women who decide to terminate pregnancies are often trying to protect their families from the enormous economic burdens that an unplanned addition creates. Unintended pregnancies are highest among the most vulnerable women, particularly those without a high school diploma.

America should be striving toward family and sexual arrangements that provide more, not fewer, choices for the women whose talents, participation and prosperity make the modern economy function. Regressing on abortion is a mistake the country can’t afford.