The Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will affect much more than women's access to abortions. Decades of economic research demonstrate that, by limiting their power over when and with whom they form families and relationships, it will threaten their livelihoods and even their lives.
Arguably the most telling research has nothing to do with abortion at all. It involves divorce, or more specifically a revolution in family law that occurred nearly 50 years ago, about the time of the original Roe v. Wade decision. Instead of requiring both parties to agree to dissolve a marriage, or one party to prove that the other was at fault, states started allowing either spouse to act unilaterally. This gave women more power to leave unhappy or abusive marriages.
Different states enacted the changes at different times, creating a natural experiment that economists studied to tease out the effects on divorce rates, women's earnings, and retirement security. But the most significant and sobering findings involved mortality: 10 percent fewer women died at the hands of their spouses and 8 percent fewer committed suicide (there was no effect on men). Reports of domestic violence against women fell as well.
Homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women—16 percent higher than among non-pregnant women of similar age.Share on Twitter
Abortion also gives women the power to exit relationships. If you have a child with someone, you are bound to them for at least 18 years through custody, visitation, and child support. In surveys, 31 percent of women seeking to terminate pregnancies cited a “partner-related reason,” such as not wanting a child with the man, wanting to end the relationship, or believing that the father wouldn't care for the child. Of those, about 8 percent cited abuse as the primary reason. Twice that many said the partner had physically abused them within the past six months.
Extrapolating to 2020, when almost a million abortions were performed in the United States, the survey results equate to about 25,000 directly related to abuse, and about 50,000 in which the mother was recently abused. And those are the ones who survive: Homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women—16 percent higher than among non-pregnant women of similar age.
Individuals familiar with contract negotiations will recognize that in the case of both divorce and abortion, the issue at hand is bargaining power and the relevant policy is the ability to exit. Unilateral divorce made it easier to end a marital relationship. The Supreme Court's ruling makes it more difficult to prevent a parental relationship, thus redistributing bargaining power away from women and towards men. This will have dire consequences for women's physical safety and well-being. And while that might be the most severe effect, it won't be the only one.
When abortion access was expanded in the 1970s, the effects were clear: More control over the timing of motherhood improved women's economic outcomes. More-recent studies show the economic harms of being denied an abortion: Women who were turned away from an abortion clinic because they were just past the gestational weeks of eligibility had lower employment, more debt, and more public program participation than those who were able to get an abortion.
More control over the timing of motherhood improved women's economic outcomes.Share on Twitter
Policymakers can, at least in theory, mitigate the employment and earnings effects of having a child—by providing universal paid leave, free childcare, mandatory sick time for all workers, the right to part-time work. The United States has done none of these. But only the right to have an abortion can shift the balance between men and women in a way that empowers the latter to extract themselves from relationships that possibly neither wants. That door is now closing, state by state.
Kathryn Edwards is an economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared on Bloomberg on July 15, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.