There’s no question that limiting access to abortion threaten’s women’s lives. But denying these services also has a significant impact on the American economy.
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This month, the Supreme Court announced it would rule on a case that could decide the future of abortion access across the country. To say the least, this news has reproductive rights advocates on edge in light of the court’s conservative majority, as well as the promise to roll back Roe v. Wade made by the president who appointed Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
We know what’s at stake when women can’t access the reproductive health care they need. In the United States, maternal death rates soar in states with more restrictions on abortion access. For several years now, the U.S. has maintained the highest maternal death rates in the industrialized world, with disproportionately higher rates in communities of color. And with a freshly established anti-abortion Supreme Court majority poised to strip away abortion rights for years to come, this existential threat to women’s human rights intensifies by the day. But threatening abortion access also hurts every American where it matters most: The bank.
It’s difficult if not impossible to overstate the profound, life-or-death urgency of abortion access—which is why frequent dismissal of reproductive rights as a “social issue” or “identity politics” is so confounding. Whether it’s op-eds from liberal writers unpacking the 2016 election, or robust demands for “unity” on pro-working class economic policies by progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders, the narrative of separating identity-specific policy issues like abortion from supposedly identity-neutral economic issues has become a fixture in mainstream centrist and leftist politics alike. And it’s wrong.
In 2018, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi justified Party leadership’s support for anti-abortion Democrats by claiming this stance would allow Democrats to “protect all the other rights that we have.” To be clear, abortion access is inseparable from all other intertwined issues of social and economic justice. The belittling of it as a lesser, tangential issue, simply because it disproportionately impacts women, pregnant people, and communities of color, is as much an insult to these groups as it is simply out-of-touch with reality.
Abortion access is, to be certain, a human rights issue, and an issue of so-called “identity politics” insofar as it directly, disproportionately affects women. Access to abortion saves lives just as lack of access takes lives. And in either case, a woman should not have to face life-or-death medical circumstances simply to not be forced by the government to carry a pregnancy and give birth.
But social and economic issues are all intersecting—and abortion access is no different. One’s ability to choose not to be pregnant, and choose whether, when, and how to grow their family, is inherently tied to the economy and labor force. More often than not, pregnancy is a deciding factor in whether someone is able to stay in school, or stay in their job, or aspire toward a raise or promotion without facing nearly disqualifying discrimination. Abortion access impacts every aspect of someone’s life—and certainly impacts their socioeconomic circumstances.
The majority of the one-in-four American women who have abortions are women of color, and 75 percent are low-income; about half (49 percent) live below the federal poverty line. Fifty-nine percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, and research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has demonstrated worsened outcomes in living standards for the children of women who seek but are unable to access abortions. Specifically, existing children in the households of women who were denied abortions were more likely to live below the federal poverty level for several years later than the existing children of women who were able to receive abortions.
There is no shortage of barriers that could deny women abortion access — especially the more than 3 million women who live in “abortion deserts” (regions where you must travel more than 100 miles to reach your nearest abortion clinic), or the women who live in the 90 percent of U.S. counties lacking an abortion provider. The dearth of abortion-providing clinics across the nation stems from years of coordinated efforts by anti-abortion state lawmakers to pass medically unnecessary regulatory laws, for the sole purpose of shutting down clinics unable to comply.
But abortion has also been widely inaccessible across economic lines quite literally since Roe v. Wade, with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976. Hyde’s discriminatory ban on federal funding for elective abortions has directly led to an estimated one in four women on Medicaid forced to carry to term, effectively reducing abortion care to a socioeconomic privilege. And in addition to the Hyde Amendment, as of this month, 26 states restrict insurance coverage of abortion care in some way.
In 2017, one study found cost-free access to the most effective birth control for all girls and women of reproductive age would save the federal government $12 billion annually, reducing spending on a vast array of public health costs. It’s impossible to measure the unquantifiable benefits to empowering women and pregnant people with bodily autonomy en masse, but it seems likely investing in abortion access would have similar, fiscally prudent effects to investing in contraception access.
The contrasts in fiscal responsibility between investing in reproductive health care access and restricting it are jarring. For each blatantly unconstitutional anti-abortion law states are forced to defend in prolonged court trials, state governments spend millions in taxpayer dollars on legal fees. As of September, a judge ruled Texas owed $2.5 million to pro-choice lawyers following a legal conflict over an anti-abortion fetal burial law, bringing total legal fees to defend this one law up to $3.6 million, according to the Houston Chronicle. In 2016, amid a massive budget crisis, the state of Alabama shelled out $1.7 million in legal fees to defend one law targeting abortion clinics. Around the same time, and facing similar economic circumstances, Wisconsin was forced to pay $1.8 million to Planned Parenthood lawyers, and North Carolina, $1 million to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
These were the fees for states to defend one single anti-abortion law. Now imagine the fees associated with the roughly 1,200 anti-abortion laws enacted since Roe v. Wade on the state and federal levels, more than a third of these enacted in the last seven years alone. This year, the proliferation of laws that explicitly ban or criminalize all or nearly all abortions predictably comes with high legal fees, as each of these laws in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Missouri has been challenged in court.
But as we look toward the future, proposed abortion bans could amount to more costs than just legal fees. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and district and circuit courts increasingly stacked with anti-abortion Trump appointees, we’re looking at a future in which laws that would criminalize abortion and establish increased surveillance and incarceration of women have become a real possibility.
While men remain incarcerated in higher numbers than women, women—and especially women of color—have faced incarceration at rapidly increasing rates, by comparison. The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by 800 percent from 1977 to 2007. The cost of jails nationwide grew four-fold between 1983 and 2011 from $5.7 billion to $22.2 billion, per the Vera Institute. Laws criminalizing people who seek abortions, people who have abortions, people who provide abortions, people who help facilitate access to abortions, and people suspected of having abortions would likely inundate the already over-crowded, economically unsustainable criminal justice system.
It’s worth noting the economic impact of criminalized abortion on the criminal justice system would reach beyond the costs of jailing a few women and doctors, here and there. Today, almost one third of abortions are medication abortions that involve use of abortion pills. According to medical experts, the effects of medication abortion and miscarriage on the body are virtually indecipherable. And according to legal experts, surveillance and criminalization of suspected self-managed abortion use are already increasingly, dangerously commonplace, disproportionately targeting women of color and LGBTQ people.
In a system in which all abortions are banned and criminalized, the bodies and pregnancies of all women and people would be endlessly surveilled and policed—and that surveillance and policing would be paid for by none other than the taxpayer. Across the country in recent years, dozens of women have already faced criminal charges, court trials, and even jail time for the outcomes of their pregnancies, from stillbirths to miscarriages as a result of being shot.
Abortion is a uniquely, needlessly polarizing political issue, though it’s hard to overstate just how much it shouldn’t be. But there’s one thing both major political parties seem to have in common in discussions of abortion, and that’s the distancing of reproductive rights from economics. Democrats who fear alienating a mostly imagined, rural working class that would magically side with them on all other issues except abortion distance themselves from this divisive “social” issue; Republicans who fear being exposed for the fiscal irresponsibility their anti-abortion laws require do the same.
The truth is not at all so neatly compartmentalized: In the same way lack of abortion access costs lives—thousands each year—it also costs money. It costs women, mothers, and children economic security; it costs state governments exorbitant amounts in legal fees; it costs the labor force talent and unsaid potential; and both now and in the future, it could cost unsaid amounts to surveil, prosecute, and jail women who violate laws that criminalize abortion.
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