In 1973, when the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that an unwanted pregnancy “may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.” Later, in 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the court found that the right to abortion is necessary for “women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation.”
Now that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has made it legal for states to ban or restrict abortions, what comes next is certain: More people who need an abortion will be unable to obtain one, which will plunge many of them into financial turmoil and curtail their ability to pursue their dreams.
The Turnaway Study, conducted from 2008 to 2010, contains perhaps the most important research on this topic. A team of academics led by Diana Greene Foster, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, surveyed women who sought abortions across the United States and compared those who were able to get one with those who were not. They were later able to connect the women with 10 years of their credit report data to keep following what happened to them.
The women in the study started on a similar financial footing and economic trajectory. But those who couldn’t get an abortion were nearly four times as likely to be living in poverty six months later, and the gap persisted for at least four years. The authors found that this was because most of the women who didn’t get an abortion went on to give birth, usually with no increase in income and little in extra government benefits or child support.
Being unable to obtain an abortion also made it difficult for the women to achieve their economic goals. Six months after the start of the study, the women who were turned away were more than three times as likely to be unemployed than the women who got abortions, and those who worked were less likely to be doing so full time. They were also less likely to graduate from school and more likely to drop out. Among those who had aspirational life plans, the women who were denied an abortion and gave birth were far less likely to achieve them.
The financial distress that all of this created was acute and long-lasting. The women who couldn’t get an abortion were 78 percent more likely to end up with at least $1,750 in debt that was more than 30 days past due, and they were 81 percent more likely to end up bankrupt, evicted, or with a tax lien against them. And while having a child is an expensive proposition for any American, the study found that bearing an unwanted pregnancy “may carry additional economic penalties over and above what is typically experienced by disadvantaged women when they have a new child.”
These financial harms can be found in other kinds of national-level data as well. Researchers have compared outcomes in the five states that repealed their abortion bans before Roe with the rest of the country and found that legal abortion increased women’s levels of education, their ability to participate in the labor force, their earnings, and their “occupational prestige.” It also reduced the number of children living in poverty.
In recent years, many states have moved in the opposite direction, clamping down on access to abortion. Economists found that in states with TRAP (targeted restriction of abortion providers) laws, women are 5.8 percent less likely to move between jobs and 7.6 percent less likely to move on to better-paid jobs. Men experience no impact.
These costs do not fall evenly. Previous research has found that when clinics close, abortion rates decline the most for people who can’t afford the travel and child care needed to make longer trips. After Dobbs, those with the least means will be the least likely to be able to travel to another state to get an abortion. Many of them will give birth and suffer financial consequences.
Even if there were no financial cost to being forced to bear an unwanted pregnancy, it would still be a heinous violation of someone’s human rights. And even if the US offered generous supports to parents such that having a child created no financial harm, it would still constitute an attack on a person’s bodily autonomy if they are not able to terminate a pregnancy. But there is a clear economic cost levied on Americans who want and need abortions but can’t get them. It is a price we have already been making people pay by allowing states to restrict the procedure. And now it is a price millions more will have to pay.