Abortion bans across the US will pile pressure on economically vulnerable women who are already struggling because of high inflation and recession fears, economists and reproductive policy experts have warned.
The reaction to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the nearly 50-year-old Roe vs Wade precedent enshrining the right to an abortion has rippled quickly through US states, each of which must now decide how to regulate the procedure — or allow it at all.
Nearly 30mn women between the ages of 15 and 44 live in states that have already banned or are likely to ban abortion statewide since the ruling. Around 290,000 legal abortions occurred in these states in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Guttmacher Institute.
Many of those states also have the highest rates of poverty among women of childbearing age. Nearly a quarter of 15- to 44-year-old women in Louisiana and Mississippi, where abortion bans were immediately triggered by the overturning of Roe, are below the federal poverty line.
The most economically vulnerable women will probably bear the brunt of the fallout from statewide bans, which are expected to exacerbate existing societal inequities amid the biggest change to abortion care access in 50 years.
“People with resources can travel . . . [and] will figure out how to order pills online . . . It’s very likely that wealthier people will be able to circumvent their state laws and poor people will not,” said Diana Greene Foster, a demographer and reproductive policy expert at University of California, San Francisco.
Middlebury College economist Caitlin Knowles Myers, agreed, noting that while abortion bans remain at the state level, economic inequities will become more pronounced.
“This is a group of women that is already poor, already living on the margins. [They] are very unlikely to have access to paid leave . . . or high- quality childcare,” said Myers. “It’s reasonable to expect that they’re going to suffer and their families are going to suffer economically as a result.”
Restrictions to abortion providers can affect how women participate in the labour force.
New research pre-published in March by Itay Ravid, a law professor at Villanova University, and Jonathan Zandberg, an economist and lecturer at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the enforcement of laws restricting abortion providers widens the wage gap between men and women in that state due to women leaving the labour force or choosing lower-paying jobs.
“We find that every time such a law is enforced, in the states that enforce this law, we see about a 5 per cent drop in their income, compared to the population in states that have not enforced [this] law,” said Zandberg.
States where abortion is or will be banned or severely restricted are likely to feel the effects most acutely — but even in states where the procedure remains legal, women coming from states where bans are in effect will put additional pressure on providers.
“There is a potential kind of abortion tourism into the other states that will put a burden on those other states. That can potentially create a situation where the providers will be unable to provide the service, and it will become more expensive,” Ravid said.
In a May 10 hearing — days after a draft of the decision to overturn Roe vs Wade leaked — Treasury secretary Janet Yellen warned members of the US Senate that “eliminating the right of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades”.
One landmark study — the Turnaway Study from the University of California, San Francisco, which followed over 1,000 women who either received or were denied an abortion for 10 years — provides some indications as to what some of the other effects could be. It found that women who are denied abortions are twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to live in poverty compared to those who received abortions.
The majority of those who sought abortions in the study did so because they could not afford to care for a child.
“Often people want to have kids in the future, they just don’t want the circumstances that they’re in now . . . when they are able to get an abortion it’s not uncommon [for them] to have a kid later under better circumstances,” said Greene Foster, who developed and led the Turnaway Study.
In collaboration with Greene Foster, Sarah Miller, a University of Michigan economist, examined the credit reports of women who participated in the Turnaway Study in the years leading up to and following their expected pregnancy.
This research, published in January, found that women denied an abortion suffered significantly greater financial distress in the years following the pregnancy relative to those who received abortions, despite starting in similar financial circumstances. Those turned away saw their debt increase by 78 per cent, on average, and their credit scores were more likely to drop below 600.
The consequences of denying access to abortions radiate out to the rest of the family, too.
The Turnaway Study found that children of women who are denied abortions were more likely to live in poverty and five times as likely to live in a household that could not afford to pay for basic living expenses, compared to children of women who received an abortion earlier.
Approximately 100,000 people will be prevented from accessing abortion care in the first year alone following bans in states, representing a 13 per cent reduction in abortions nationwide, according to Myers.
But that estimate assumes that people in states where abortion is banned will be able to travel, and that states where it is allowed will be able to handle the new influx of patients. Myers said she anticipates that Illinois, Kansas and Florida will be major destinations for people seeking abortions.
In Montana, Planned Parenthood announced last week that it would not be able to provide medication abortions to individuals travelling from states where abortion had been banned, as some Republican lawmakers seek to prosecute residents who cross state lines for an abortion.
Acknowledging the financial burden of childcare, some Republican senators, including Marco Rubio and Steve Daines, have put forward plans to financially support women who are forced to have unplanned pregnancies. Yet many of these provisions are funded via existing benefits like Social Security or the Earned Income Tax Credit, the latter of which overwhelmingly benefits poor families that have some income.
“If a woman lives in Mississippi, the maximum monthly welfare benefit that she could get for herself and two children would be $220 a month, which just doesn’t support a family. If she’s already on welfare and has another child, Mississippi has a family cap on their welfare policy,” said Myers.
“This vulnerable group has a very, very frayed net to catch them.”