If you believe abortion is murder, its economic consequences are beside the point. Morality trumps all.
Still, many opponents of abortion make economic arguments along with legal and moral ones — asserting, for instance, that access to abortion has not improved or has even hurt the economic prospects of women. These abortion opponents seem to be trying to win over the ambivalent middle: people who are not enthusiastic about abortion but also worry that restricting it will have harmful social effects.
Since abortion opponents have chosen to engage on the battlefield of economics, it’s fair to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their case from the point of view of economics, quite apart from the question of whether abortion is right or wrong on moral grounds.
Let’s consider three briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could result in the overturning of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to an abortion. Two of the briefs are from opponents of abortion and one is from a group supporting abortion rights. All three make economic arguments.
The main brief of the State of Mississippi, whose 2018 law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is at issue in Dobbs, argues that judicial precedent “gives no good reason to believe that decades of advances for women rest on Roe, and evidence is to the contrary.” It says that “numerous laws enacted since Roe — addressing pregnancy discrimination, requiring leave time, assisting with child care, and more — facilitate the ability of women to pursue both career success and a rich family life.”
A friend-of-the-court brief submitted by 240 “women scholars and professionals, and pro-life feminist organizations” amplifies the state’s case and delves more into economic theory. It disputes the Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” The brief says that women were advancing in society before Roe — challenging the argument that the court’s decision was critical to their advancement — and that women have continued to advance in recent decades, a period when the rate of abortion was steadily declining.
Since changes in abortion law occurred at the same time as changes in culture and technology, it’s hard if not impossible to disentangle which factors were responsible for women’s advancement, the brief says.
The brief also criticizes a body of research called the “turnaway” studies. By comparing financial outcomes for women who received abortions and ones who sought abortions but were turned away, these studies found evidence that access to abortion did improve women’s material lives. But the brief argues that the number of cases was too small to be valid. It also favorably cites a 2016 study by the economist Martha Bailey of the University of Michigan and the sociologist Thomas DiPrete of Columbia University, saying “the authors note the difficulty of assigning a degree of causality to any one factor” in women’s progress.
If anything, the brief says, abortion has been bad for women in a variety of ways. “The data suggest some correlation between abortion, the feminization of poverty, and women’s declining levels of happiness, including fewer and less satisfying long-term committed relationships with partners and the birth of fewer children than women desire by the end of their reproductive lives,” the authors write.
The majority of the 240 signers on the brief have law or medical degrees. The first signer is Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota. There are few if any economists on the list.
The third brief in question, which supports abortion rights, is signed by 154 economists and researchers, most of them women, including such prominent scholars as Francine Blau of Cornell, Janet Currie of Princeton, Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings Institution.
The economists challenge the argument that there’s no way to identify the effects of Roe because of all the other things going on in society over the past half century. It is possible to infer causation using “universally accepted” econometric tools that have been developed since the early 1990s, they write. One method is to compare states that changed abortion laws with ones that didn’t. That’s a “natural experiment” in which the states that didn’t change anything serve as a control group.
The economists also defend the turnaway studies that the other brief attacked. They write that the studies were in fact big enough to have explanatory power and that they demonstrated that access to abortion improved women’s financial outcomes.
As for the study by Bailey and DiPrete that the other brief cited approvingly, the economists’ brief says that Bailey and DiPrete never said it’s impossible to ferret out the effects of abortion. In fact, the brief points out, Bailey and DiPrete wrote that “a growing literature in economics suggests many of the longer-term changes in family formation and childbearing — as well as the previously described changes in women’s education and labor force outcomes — are related to the introduction of modern contraception and abortion.”
The economists write that the other brief “could not be more misleading” in its characterization of Bailey and DiPrete’s article.
I reached out to Bailey and DiPrete by email to ask which side is correct about their work. After conferring with DiPrete, Bailey told me that they sided with the economists, writing that the other brief’s implication “that we cast doubt on the role of abortion in women’s economic and social advancement is a misrepresentation of our article. The brief’s logic is akin to saying that, because a car relies on multiple systems, it would run just fine if we eliminated one. Of course, many factors we review shaped women’s advancement over the 20th century. But, substantial, well-done causal research on the topic shows that access to safe and legal abortion has been integral to women’s health, well-being and economic advancement.”
To repeat, this back-and-forth is irrelevant to someone who believes abortion is murder. I can respect a person like Matthew Walther, a Catholic journalist who, in a guest essay for this newspaper, rattled off all the potentially bad consequences of banning abortion but nonetheless concluded that none of them ultimately matter when lives are at stake.
But once abortion opponents choose to engage on matters of economics, as they have in Dobbs, they need to be prepared for a fight.
The readers write
Regarding your May 13 newsletter on courage, I’m a caregiver for my 99-year-old father. He served in China with the Flying Tigers fighter squadron, under the command of Tex Hill. When asked about his service, he replies, “I was just doing my job.”
Port Hueneme, Calif.
Quote of the day
“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”
— Ambrose Bierce, “The Cynic’s Word Book” (1906)
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