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THE ECONOMICS OF ABORTION

Watch Janet Yellen explain how overturning Roe v. Wade will hurt the US economy

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen testifies during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing.
Reuters
Janet Yellen: “Children will grow up in poverty and do worse themselves.”
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

Looking into the Future of Capitalism

Published Last updated

Update: On June 24, 2022 the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, writing that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.”

There are many reasons for the US Supreme Court to refrain from overturning Roe v. Wade, chief among them the protection of a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body. But as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told a Senate committee, the criminalization of abortion—if it happens—will also hurt the US economy, and in particular hurt the financial well-being of women. 

Yellen was summarizing decades of robust research into the economic effects of Roe v. Wade. Being in charge of their reproductive lives has helped women complete college more often, join the labor force in greater numbers, and raise their children in better financial circumstances. To acknowledge these cold economic facts, Yellen said in response to a comment from a Republican senator, “is not harsh. This is the truth.”

Abortion rights have yielded economic freedoms

The most crucial economic study of Roe v. Wade began in the waiting rooms of abortion clinics in 21 states in 2008. Here, researchers from the University of California San Francisco identified more than a thousand women—some who’d received abortions, and others who were turned away because they were already past the gestational limit. The Turnaway Study, as it came to be called, followed up with these women over five years, documenting how differently their lives turned out.

In a 2020 paper, the researchers found that the women who weren’t able to have an abortion experienced “large and persistent negative effects” on their financial health. Their unpaid debt rose by 78%. Negative credit events, such as bankruptcies and evictions, rose by 81%. The women who’d been denied an abortion were more likely to struggle to pay for basic expenses like food and housing. Their children were more likely to live below the federal poverty level. These levels of distress persisted for years.

A bevy of other papers supplement the Turnaway Study’s essential conclusions. For Black women, access to abortion correlated to a 3.7% increase in entering college and a 9.6% increase in graduation rates, according to a 1996 study. Another paper found that access to confidential abortions “increases the probability of holding a management or professional job (6-fold and 2-fold, respectively), increases individual earning (61%) and family income (92%).”

Researchers from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated that restrictions on abortion cost states $105 billion a year via decreased earnings and labor participation, time off, and higher employee attrition. Lifting these restrictions could add half a million women to the workforce.

In the most striking statistic of the Turnaway Study, the researchers asked women who’d had an abortion, five years down the line, if they regretted their choice. An overwhelming 95% said they’d made the right decision. In the decades after Roe v. Wade, the benefits of abortion rights have been evident to women. Yellen highlighted those benefits—and the dangers of any adverse Supreme Court decision to come.

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