In post-Roe world, economic costs of abortion restrictions could be double initial estimate

As U.S. Supreme Court justices considered the future of reproductive rights in the U.S., experts were making the case that abortion access is an economic imperative. An amicus brief filed in January in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization on behalf of 154 economists and researchers argued that abortion legalization and access have "broad downstream social and economic effects"; and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen testified during a Senate hearing in May that eliminating the right of access to an abortion "would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades."

The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) quantified these effects in 2021, releasing research concluding that state-level abortion restrictions cost the U.S. economy $105 billion per year by reducing women's labor force participation and earnings and increasing turnover and time off from work among women 15 to 44 years old.

"A lot of times when we talk about abortion restrictions, the narrative is around a moral argument [or] viability framing," C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of IWPR, tells MAKERS. "But we thought it would be really good to think about the economic costs to women and state economies so we can broaden the conversation."

To many, $105 billion may sound like a hefty number. But now, Mason says the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade — and consequently an influx of state laws limiting or outright banning abortion — means the economic penalty for states limiting or banning abortion could be even higher.

"Those estimates, in that moment, were conservative and true and accurate," Mason says of the research released last year. "But in this moment, a post-Roe moment, those numbers rise significantly."

Mason says they're still calculating the post-Roe abortion restrictions cost to the U.S. economy, but she believes the revised number could be as high as $200 billion per year — up to double what IWPR estimated last year. The increased travel time for many people to acquire an out-of-state abortion means more days off of work, resulting in lost productivity for businesses and less tax revenue for local economies — all factors, Mason says, that result in increased losses for the U.S. economy.

"I think the number could be as high as double our original estimates, but we're just not certain yet. We're trying to keep up with all the changes and the calculations and really trying to quantify the economic impact for not only women but states and also businesses," Mason explains.

"Because women are 50% of the workforce, having access to the full range of reproductive health care services and having the ability to decide when you want to start a family for whatever reason is really a business imperative," she adds.

Abortion restrictions can also hurt state and local economies by discouraging many women and those sympathetic to reproductive rights from visiting, moving to or working in places with anti-abortion laws. The New York Times reports that business leaders in some states hostile toward reproductive rights are already concerned about how their state’s abortion restrictions will affect their ability to recruit young talent — especially when many businesses are already struggling to attract and retain workers.

And it's not just companies that could be affected; Mason says IWPR is researching how state-level abortion restrictions may influence where young people choose to apply to and attend college.

"I think it will be really interesting and very telling, because when the Texas ban [on abortion after six weeks] was passed, the majority of younger women or women said that they would not like to live in a state that has these kinds of restrictions," Mason says. "And so we already know that to be true, but I think what we're going to see is people will be making decisions about where they choose to settle, where they choose to spend their dollars, where they choose to work and where they go to school as a result of these types of laws."

For those seeking an abortion, the personal financial consequences of being denied the procedure can be life altering — especially when 49% of abortion patients live below the poverty line, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and 55% are “experiencing a disruptive life event such as losing a job, breaking up with a partner, or falling behind on rent,” according to the Brookings Institution.

The socioeconomic effects of abortion restrictions were part of the famous Turnaway Study, which was led by Diana Greene Foster and published in 2018. The study interviewed nearly 1,000 women from 30 abortion clinics across the U.S., where some of the women were able to receive an abortion because they were just under the clinic's gestational limit, and others were "turned away" and forced to carry the pregnancy to term because they were just over the gestational limit. Foster and her team followed up with both sets of women over the next five years and asked them about their economic well-being; they found that women who had been denied an abortion experienced immediate increases in economic hardship that continued for the duration of the study.

"You see a drop in employment, an increase in public assistance — but not enough [public assistance] to keep the family from falling into poverty," Foster tells MAKERS. "And when we talk to them we hear that they are less likely to have enough money to meet just basic living needs like food and housing compared to people who started out economically the same but were able to get their abortion."

A recently published credit report study in which Foster collaborated with economists Sarah Miller and Laura Wherry paints an even clearer picture of the financial consequences for Turnaway Study participants. By examining the participants' credit reports, Foster, Miller and Wherry found that women who received abortions and women who were denied abortions were financially similar in the three years leading up to the pregnancy — but their trajectories diverged postpregnancy, with women who were denied abortions "experiencing more debt, lower credit scores and worse financial security for years after the pregnancy."

The credit report study also shed light on the financial outlook for participants if they had children after having an abortion.

"We actually looked at what happens when somebody gets their abortion and then has a kid later. And we see that the economic burden of having a kid seems to be less for those subsequent pregnancies born under better circumstances than if a woman is pregnant and denied an abortion," Foster says.

"People choose to have an abortion when they feel they don't have the resources to raise a baby. And it doesn't necessarily mean they don't want kids; it means they want to have kids when they're ready for them," she adds. "When people get an abortion, they are more likely to end up in better circumstances with more economic security, better relationships — and so they're more likely to have that wanted kid later."

The Economic Policy Institute writes that the ability to delay having a child translates to "significantly increased wages and labor earnings, especially among Black women, as well as increased likelihood of educational attainment."

Legalization of abortion also decreased the percentage of children who grew up in poverty by 0.54 percentage points and increased college attendance rates; and being able to delay motherhood by one year due to access to legal abortion increased women's wages by 11% on average, according to research cited by Joint Economic Committee Democrats.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, tells MAKERS that her research suggests children are less well-off when they're born as the result of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

"We did one study that showed, for example, that an unplanned birth reduces the probability that the child will ever go to college, even after adjusting for things like socioeconomic status," Sawhill says. "So in general, the opportunities that the children will face in life will be reduced by the fact that the child is born before the parents were ready."

"I think it's pretty clear that these restrictions on abortion are going to widen the gaps in opportunity for children in the U.S.," she adds. "The states that are being the most restrictive on abortion are also the states where children are already doing poorly — and where there's little investment in children in health, education [and] social services."