A recent front-page news summary in the Financial Times was headlined “Economists back abortion rights.” As an economist I had thought this topic was out of bounds for the profession, so I read the article with interest. When I subsequently examined the relevant evidence, it became clear to me that these economists had not made their case.
The story focused on an 83-page amicus brief submitted by a group of 154 economists to the US Supreme Court in Thomas E. Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health, et al., Petitioners v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, et al., Respondents. Arguments in the case, which asks the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and uphold a Mississippi law making abortion illegal after fifteen weeks of pregnancy, will be heard on December 1.
The “Brief of Amici Curiae of Economists in Support of Respondents,” filed on Sept. 20, came in reaction to “Brief of Amici Curiae of 240 Women Scholars and Professionals, and Prolife Feminist Organizations in Support of Petitioners,” a 90-page document, filed July 29, which presented cogent arguments and compelling evidence that abortion availability does not lead to more prosperous lives for women.
Both briefs cited the results of a relatively long-range study that compared the future of women who successfully had an abortion with that of women who were denied an abortion by the clinic they visited. This was the controversial Turnaway Report, originally released in 2018 and later turned into a book entitled The Turnaway Study: Ten years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion, published in June of this year.
Diane Greene Foster of the University of California, San Francisco, the book’s author who also spearheaded the study, gave an interview in which she explained her team’s work. They selected and studied the experience of about 1,000 (at the start) pregnant women at 30 abortion clinics in 21 states. Most of the clinics had gestational limits as to when they would perform an abortion; women who were more advanced in their pregnancies were turned away. The latter, according to the study, were considered the disadvantaged of the two groups.
Women were interviewed one week after either getting an abortion or having been denied one. They were interviewed again every six months for five years. Questions covered mental and physical health, the family’s financial and social well-being, and the care of previous or subsequent children. Some 60 percent of the women who sought an abortion already had children and claimed they could not afford another. Some of the women in the study were experiencing financial, employment, and other problems before they became pregnant. About one-third of the women interviewed indicated they were in a “violent relationship.” The study didn’t ask about religious beliefs.
An assessment of Turnaway given in the women’s brief states that the study was funded “. . . at a research center advocating for legal abortion: the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. The studies suffer from high dropout rates resulting in tiny cohorts and low statistical power, the lack of a control group, undefined cohorts, and the researchers’ refusal to share data with independent researchers, contrary to scientific practices” (page 22).
As the 240 women argued, the Turnaway study, which the economists used to support their brief, failed to consider the tremendous progress made by women even well before Roe. They cite data on how women have advanced in terms of educational achievement (seen, for instance, in their overwhelming presence in law schools), entrepreneurship and business ownership, and their representation at all levels of government. One example cited was Jeannette Rankin, who in 1916 became the first woman to be elected to Congress (to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana), four years before women got the right to vote.
In the evidence the economists set forth, a key point, they claimed, was that pregnant women who did not have an abortion ended up poor or poorer than they had been before the birth of their child. Yes, a child does cost money as does every human being. A particular economic element enters the picture if a woman, especially if unmarried, is left alone to raise her child. This has become more prevalent in recent years and happens more to black women, whose out-of-wedlock birth rate now exceeds 70 percent. Single mothers without the father’s support do shoulder a greater financial burden. The economists’ brief did not address male behavior: their frequent abandonment of the women they impregnated and neglect of the child they fostered.
Both briefs made references to yet another (more esoteric) study by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “The Economic Consequences of Being Denied an Abortion.” Despite its title, this report relies on the Turnaway Report and expands on it by adding “administrative data from credit reports” to assess the well-being of the participants in the Turnaway study.
The authors, which include Diane Greene Foster, apply statistical formulae and present over 20 pages of charts which nonetheless conclude: “These results suggest that births that occurred following a subsequent pregnancy result in less financial distress than those that occur after an abortion denial. In addition, this is likely an underestimate of any difference in the financial effects between wanted and unwanted births, given that some of these subsequent births likely resulted from unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. However, we note that the confidence intervals of the two estimates do overlap, making it difficult to draw strong conclusions from this exercise.”
Despite all the analysis proffered, it is hard to fathom how abortion availability can be used to measure women’s success or failure. In the strong words of Secular Pro-Life, one of the signatories to the women’s brief: “It is grotesque to suggest that abortion is a prerequisite to equality. Abortion prioritizes the wombless male body over other forms of embodiment. It rejects a societal standard which says women’s path to equality is violence against their own children.” (page 3).
Economists may or may not favor abortion as a personal view, but they fail to make an economic case for abortion and women’s economic status. As history has shown, the economic well-being of women is a function of eliminating career barriers, access to professional education, the ability to take advantage of opportunities, and the willingness to work diligently to move up the economic ladder. Women made great strides before Roe and will continue to advance even without it.
ALSO OF INTEREST: China’s volte face on abortion
The push to codify full abortion availability in the United States via a bill introduced in the House and approved by all Democrats save one (Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas), known as the Women’s Health Protection Act (H.R. 3755), comes at the same time that China has reversed course in its population policies to promote births and introduce some restrictions on abortion availability.
While for decades China pursued a one-child policy accompanied by widespread forced abortions and forced sterilization of noncompliant women, today the country has become vividly aware of the demographic crisis it created. Thus, on September 26, the Chinese authorities announced that they were not only allowing up to three children per woman, but that benefits and incentives would be offered to these women. Abortions for “non-medical” purposes would be questioned although it is not clear how such a measure would be implemented in practice.
Abortion and the one child policy pursued since the 1970s—which earned China the United Nations Population Award in 1983—has drastically reduced the fertility rate, especially in recent years. While China remains the world’s most populous country, its fertility rate fell from 1.6 in 2016 to 1.3 in 2020, well below the 2.1 replacement rate. Interestingly, in 2015 China had changed its single child policy to allow for two children, then three as of this year. Last year China experienced the slowest population increase in decades. Encouraging couples to have more children may be illusive as it cannot be as coercive as their abortion policies. Nonetheless, China’s policy is moving in one direction while the United States is veering the opposite way.