Counting the cost of the abortion ban

In the second of a series on the impact of the Roe v Wade ruling, we assess the economic and political damage that America’s right may unleash

The World Today Updated 10 August 2022 Published 7 July 2022 3 minute READ

Gabriella Cook Francis

Former Academy Associate, US and the Americas Programme

At least 10 states have outlawed abortion in response to the US Supreme Court ruling on June 24 to overturn Roe v Wade, with more expected to follow suit. Despite numerous legal challenges, it is thought that about half of American states will ban or severely restrict abortions in the coming weeks. Most are controlled by the Republican Party.

Republican-led states have spent decades slashing taxes and welfare spending and rejecting federal healthcare benefits. Now, in the aftermath of a long-fought legal battle that takes away access to forms of sexual healthcare, the economic and social implications for some of the poorest women in the Unites States are clear.

To prevent deeper levels of inequality developing, these same states must bring in socially beneficial policies to support the women, children, families and businesses that will be hit by these abortion bans.

The cost of giving birth

The average woman seeking an abortion is on a low-income, in her 20s and already a parent. Of the nearly 900,000 abortions carried out each year in America, 49 per cent are undertaken by women who live at or below the federal poverty line. Poor women are five times more likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy, according to the Brookings Institution.

Abortion is not a cheap option with costs ranging from a few hundred dollars for an abortion pill to $1,500 medical procedures later in the pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood.

Yet the cost of giving birth and raising a child is far greater. In 2020, 42 per cent of parents used the government healthcare scheme Medicaid to assist with basic birth costs.

In America the average cost of giving birth is more than $13,000, according to the Health Care Cost Institute. Even those with health insurance are required to pay on average $4,500.

These high costs, and those associated with pre- and post-natal check-ups, have contributed to America having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world – and this rate is three-times higher for black Americans than for white.

The cost of being denied an abortion

The costs mount after birth. In many states, workplace provision for paid family leave is scarce, as are subsidized schooling for children under five and other parental benefits. Childcare for infants and toddlers averages more than $1,300 per month per child.

Across the southern states, where anti-abortion laws have already been triggered, 20 to 30 per cent of children live in poverty – four to six times the national average of 5.6 per cent.

Unless these predominantly Republican states reverse decades of cuts to welfare and healthcare spending to support greater numbers of births, these poverty rates will rise.

The economic consequences of banning abortions will not be short-lived. Data from the Turnaway Study, which for five years followed 1,000 women who sought abortions, shows that people denied an abortion ‘experienced an increase in household poverty lasting at least four years relative to those who received an abortion’. They were less able to avoid eviction and leave abusive relationships, damaging their physical and mental health and employment chances.

The ban will also have damaging consequences for the next generation. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, poor children are more likely to ‘have poor academic achievement, drop out of high school and later become unemployed, experience economic hardship and be involved in the criminal justice system’. Following the Roe v Wade ruling, already vulnerable women and their families may slide even faster down the ladder.

Restricting abortion hurts the economy

Republicans may hope to win back Congress in November and the presidency in 2024 on an anti-abortion platform, but they may find it hard to square the consequences of that with a promise of economic prosperity.

As Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary, testified to the Senate last month, reversing reproductive healthcare access in some states would have ‘very damaging effects’ on the national economy.

Before the ruling, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research calculated that abortion restrictions cost state economies $105 billion a year. If all restrictions were removed, the salary of each woman of child-bearing age in America would be $1,610 higher and national GDP would increase by 0.5 per cent.

Corporate America, well aware of the importance of family planning to its workforce and productivity, has been quick to respond to the ruling. Google, Apple, Yelp, Tesla and many other companies have publicly extended abortion coverage for employees.

The political risk to the Republican Party

Despite the approval of the Roe v Wade ruling from many social conservatives, Republicans face considerable political risk. They are at odds with the majority of the public on the issue.

While public support for abortion is at a 25-year high, Gallup has found public opinion has not wavered greatly over the past 50 years, with a relatively steady 80-20 split in favour of legalized abortion in some or all cases. This is despite the nearly even split of people identifying as ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’.

While it is uncertain how these sentiments will play out in the mid-term elections in November, the ruling has galvanized parts of the Democratic Party. Democratic governors in Massachusetts and Minnesota immediately issued executive orders to protect women who enter those states seeking medical care for abortion as well as providing protection for providers of abortion.

Only four countries have restricted abortion access since the 1990s: Poland, Nicaragua, El Salvador and now America

President Joe Biden, after accusations of his being soft on abortion rights, voiced support last week for suspending the filibuster blocking attempts to codify abortion rights in the Senate.

Internationally, the American right – and any potential Republican president from 2024 – will find itself out of step on the global stage when it comes to abortion access. Heads of state were swift to support women’s access to sexual healthcare in opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

By going against the global trend of legalizing abortion, the US joins the three countries – Poland, El Salvador and Nicaragua – that have enacted restrictions since the 1990s.

Managing the political and economic fallout from the ruling that overturned Roe v Wade may well prove to be the Republican Party’s biggest electoral challenge after the presidency of Donald Trump. The Supreme Court decision and subsequent state restrictions have energized the left in the run up to the midterms, unified the largest multinational firms in opposition and endangered the health of the 73 million American women of reproductive age.

American conservatives may have temporarily won the battle over Roe v Wade, but the struggle for women’s rights is far from over.

Read the other two articles in this series: ‘Empowering women aids climate resilience’ and ‘America’s abortion ban will hurt women everywhere