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POV: The overturning of ‘Roe’ ignores economic realities for pregnant people

Research shows that losing control over starting and growing a family derails one’s life trajectory, economic stability, and overall health.

POV: The overturning of ‘Roe’ ignores economic realities for pregnant people
[Photos: Claire Anderson/Unsplash; Jonathan Borba/Unsplash]

In his majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito goes to great lengths to avoid discussing the far-reaching economic and health ramifications of overturning Roe v. Wade and eliminating access to abortion. He sidesteps compelling research showing that losing autonomy over starting and growing a family derails women’s life trajectory, economic stability, and overall health and well-being. Instead, he asserts that these are issues better debated in the legislative arena, and that states’ so-called interests in protecting life take precedence over any other interests that women, or others who give birth, may have. 

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Justice Alito’s lack of knowledge—or more likely, lack of concern—about the damage that will be inflicted by Roe’s reversal does not change its real-world effects. He tries to isolate abortion as one discreet type of care that can be neatly eliminated without affecting people’s lives, as if handing off the control of people’s bodies as objects for policymakers to legislate and manipulate could be disconnected from, or have no effect on, a person’s individual autonomy, human dignity, or life course. 

The reality is that this decision must be understood in the context of women and all pregnant people‘s full lives, and how women’s ability to control their fertility is inextricably linked to the gains they have made since Roe was decided nearly 50 years ago. Previous Supreme Court decisions have recognized that being able to access contraception, access abortion, provide care for family without losing a job, and pursue any job without being paid less, or facing other forms of discrimination, are all protections aimed at removing long-standing barriers that have been used to constrain women’s full economic participation in society, and hold women back.

The Turnaway Study found that people who were denied an abortion were significantly more likely to fall into poverty, increase their amount of debt, and eventually secure a full-time job, compared to people who obtained the abortion they sought. Being denied abortion care has rippling effects on the rest of one’s economic life, impacting retirement and other savings, long-term debt, and a myriad of health-related outcomes.

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Dobbs will exact an especially heavy toll upon those who have the fewest resources and face the most barriers to their health and economic well-being—including people of color and low-income families. Many of the 26 states that have imposed, or are poised to enact, extreme abortion bans—mostly in the South and Midwest—are also those that have the lowest minimum wage and lack access to important protections, such as paid leave. Further, there are practical, physical, and emotional costs associated with being pregnant and giving birth that are critical. 

They begin with the astronomical costs of healthcare during pregnancy: co-pays for prenatal visits (assuming you have health insurance), expensive morning-sickness medications that aren’t covered by insurance, staggeringly high costs for labor, delivery, neonatal care, and more. One study found that spending on childbirth admission in the U.S. averaged $13,811—and that’s for individuals who are lucky enough to have employer-sponsored insurance. And if they are among the tens of thousands of women each year who suffer from a life-threatening maternal condition, these costs can climb even higher. But the costs don’t end there.

Moms are increasingly the breadwinners in their families, meaning their economic contributions are crucial. An estimated two-thirds of mothers are breadwinners, and these numbers rise even higher for some women of color—more than 80% of Black mothers are sole, primary, or co-breadwinners for their families. Yet mothers, like other women, experience a substantial pay gap. If they have a job to return to after giving birth, they often face a “motherhood wage penalty,” paid just 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. This penalty is especially stark for mothers of color. For every dollar paid to white fathers, Latina mothers are paid just 46 cents, Native American mothers just 50 cents, and Black mothers only 52 cents. We also know that one of the drivers of the gender wage gap overall is the fact that women work fewer hours than men—in part because they perform much of the caregiving in their families. Forcing women to carry a pregnancy to term will only add to these caregiving responsibilities and lead to widening the pay gap.

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This country’s lack of vital work supports and protections, such as paid leave, paid sick days, and reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, mean that many people need to work while pregnant, immediately after giving birth, and while juggling parenting responsibilities. This means that millions are forced to choose between paying their bills and caring for their own health and the health of their loved ones. Research has found that workers and their families lose an estimated $22.5 billion each year in wages, due to a lack of paid family and medical leave. The lack of leave hits hardest those facing the highest barriers to economic stability. For example, more than 60% of the estimated 2.9 million medical leaves that Black women needed in 2018 either were not taken or taken without pay.

While restricting access to abortion will harm women and families, the benefits of expanding access to reproductive care are well documented. Economists have found that abortion legalization increased women’s workforce participation, career success, educational attainment, and earnings. Black women, in particular, experienced some of the most substantial gains. Further, there is ample evidence that rolling back abortion rights will inflict lifelong financial harm on millions of women and countless transgender and nonbinary individuals. 

The Dobbs dissenters write: “Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.” The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs will have enormous economic consequences that may set women back decades. Political leaders must recognize—and legislate with the same understanding moving forward—that reproductive rights and economic participation are interconnected threads in women’s lives. Securing access to abortion is essential healthcare and must be part of a broader commitment to comprehensive supports that enable women and all those who give birth to lead economically stable and productive lives.

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Jocelyn Frye is the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, an organization that works to improve the lives of women and families by achieving equality for all women.


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