As the Supreme Court takes up the most important abortion case in over 20 years, economist Jared Bernstein highlighted the growing body of evidence that access to reproductive health services -- including abortion -- is directly connected to economic mobility for women.
In a March 1 Washington Post op-ed, Bernstein wrote about the importance of access to reproductive care for women to attain economic security. Bernstein connected the issue to Supreme Court oral arguments in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case on Texas's abortion restrictions, which is slated for March 2. If the decision is upheld, it could severely limit women's access to safe abortions, leaving “nearly 1 million women more than 150 miles from the nearest provider.” The decision would also create the potential for states to use similar laws to force clinics to close, putting abortion access out of reach for millions more. Bernstein highlights how this kind of restriction to reproductive health care hurts women economically -- especially low-income women.
Bernstein cited studies on reproductive access that have found positive connections between economic mobility and access to reproductive health services, or conversely, associations between lack of access to such services and poverty:
I have long supported such [reproductive] rights. And I've long recognized the decline in teenage pregnancy, particularly among poor girls, as an important advance for social policy (see Belle Sawhill's work on access to contraception and its positive impacts on child/parent outcomes). But I've failed to connect the dots between access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, and economic security.
Thankfully, those dots are compellingly connected in this report from last year, “Two Sides of the Same Coin, Integrating Economic and Reproductive Justice.” If you're thinking the connection should be obvious, I agree. Having a child is much more than an economic event, but it's also very much that, invoking significant direct costs and opportunity costs (and benefits too, of course). Thus, the inability to control such costs due to lack of access to reproductive health care is a potentially poverty-inducing problem for low-income women and their families (and 69 percent of those who seek abortions are low-income). Conversely, increasing use of the birth control pill, for example, has been found to significantly reduce the gender pay gap.
For low-income women to be able to take control of their economic lives, they must be able to access affordable, comprehensive reproductive health, including contraception and abortion. An anti-poverty agenda that fails to recognize that reality is woefully incomplete.
Bernstein cited an August 2015 report from the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, “Two Sides Of The Same Coin,” that found most women who sought an abortion were struggling financially. The report analyzed data from the Turnaway Study, an ongoing longitudinal study conducted by the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) program at the University of California, San Francisco, on “the effects of unintended pregnancy on women's lives.” Bernstein wrote (emphasis added):
I was particularly struck by the findings from a research project in progress called the Turnaway Study, a longitudinal study which follows women who sought but did not get abortions, comparing their outcomes to economically similar women who were able to access abortion services. This type of quasi-experimental study design is a good way at getting closer to causal impacts versus correlations.
A key finding from the Turnaway Study in the economic security space is that relative to women who were able to get the abortion they sought, women denied an abortion had three times the odds of being poor. A year after they were turned away, these women were 10 percent less likely to be working full-time (58 versus 48 percent), and 76 percent of them received public assistance, compared to 44 percent of women who were able to access abortion.
As women in the United States have seen their access to reproductive health care dwindle, media have done little to discuss the economic problems this creates. In the 2013 Texas state legislature battle to pass the law now challenged before the Supreme Court, national news broadcasts mentioned the economic benefits of reproductive care in only 2 percent of segments on reproductive health access. In the months leading up to the March 2 oral arguments, Spanish-language media have also virtually ignored how the law could disproportionately limit reproductive health care access for 2.5 million Texas Latinas by exacerbating already significant economic barriers.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear one of the most important cases involving abortion in over 20 years, media should focus on how this case will affect women in their everyday lives, including its impact on economic mobility.