The Great Resignation resulted in women leaving the workforce in droves. Denying them abortion care could dent the labor market
Last month, on May 11, the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022—which would have made abortion access a federal law—failed to pass due to opposition from Senate Republicans. The pro-life versus pro-choice debates that our nation is deeply embroiled in have reached a boiling point as the looming threat of a reversal of Roe v. Wade lingers on. While testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on May 10, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen argued that banning abortion would have “very damaging effects on the economy and set women back decades.”
Five decades to be exact, according to Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, the faculty director for the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.
“If we were to restrict women’s access to abortion, that means going back potentially decades to when we saw sharp declines in women’s labor force participation after giving birth to children,” van der Meulen Rodgers told Fortune. “So I think this could mean a step back by 50 years, and diminishing all the progress women have made since they’ve had access to safe abortion services on a national level, starting in 1973.”
Here’s how the elimination of safe and legal abortion access would turn back the clock and, as a result, affect the labor market.
Abortion denial could be the final straw for women already struggling in the workplace
In the first 12 months of the pandemic, women accounted for 53% of U.S. labor force departures, and about 2.3 million women exited the workforce in 2020, per a McKinsey study. One of the main reasons that women left the workforce in droves was childcare, referencing the Society for Human Resource Management. In fact, 23% of female workers with children under 10 years old considered leaving the workforce in 2020 as opposed to 10% of women without children, citing McKinsey.
“Cultural expectations of women to prioritize child-rearing, combined with women’s lower average pay, occupational status, and benefits than men (along with the high costs of childcare), mean that women in many heterosexual couples decide to leave work with the birth of a child,” Erin Hatton, associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told Fortune. “It just makes sense financially.”
It is clear that whether a woman is childless or not factors into her job tenure and career advancement. And growing data suggests that children reduce women’s labor force participation. Because of that, laws restricting or eliminating abortion would directly affect women workers in terms of their career advancement.
“For women, being able to choose when to start a family is really key to her career mobility, her earnings, and when and how she enters the labor market,” Nicole Mason, the CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Fortune. “And so taking away that choice will definitely have an adverse effect on women’s participation in the labor market, their career mobility, and being able to stay in the workforce. We already know that women are more likely than their male counterparts to leave the workforce as a result of having a child. So, restricting abortion access for women will definitely increase the likelihood that they will exit the workforce if they’re forced to carry unintended babies to term.”
Eliminating abortion would negatively impact workplace diversity
“I just want to make the connection here that, at this moment, companies and businesses are in fierce competition for top talent,” Mason told Fortune. “So the impending Supreme Court decision to limit abortion access or the range of reproductive health care options to women will definitely impact a business’s ability to attract and retain top talent: women.”
In terms of diversity, limiting abortion access would not solely impact gender diversity, but could also have a negative impact on racial diversity. Black women typically have the highest labor force participation rate of all women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2014, Black women over the age of 16 had the highest national workforce participation rate at 59.2%, as opposed to white and Latina women who had participation rates of 56.7% and 56% respectively, citing the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. As of November 2021, Black women’s labor force participation rates have risen to 60.3%, according to Brookings. Black women are attractive job candidates because they are among the most educated groups in the country, but they also have the most to lose from abortion bans.
The unintended pregnancy rate is almost 2.5 times higher for Black women than for white women, according to Duke University Press. Black women also have the highest abortion rates in the nation. In addition, they are the most likely to be unable to afford interstate travel to terminate pregnancies, in the case that abortion is outlawed in their home state, due to wage disparities.
Restricting access to abortion care could mean that women of color exit the labor force for good. Historically, women who dropped out of the workforce during a recession to care for children often struggled to return, being unable to find a job in their prior role or command their prior wages, as reported by CNBC. Nationally, labor force exits associated with the presence of children were more common among Latina women and Black women, and these exits accounted for approximately 25% of the labor force exits above pre-pandemic rates among Latina women and Black women relative to white women, citing the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. A key reason that Black and Latina women don’t return to work is that childcare centers in their neighborhoods are much more likely to close, according to a study by researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy. Between mass childcare closures in minority neighborhoods during the pandemic, and the fact that as of 2020, 46.3% of Black children lived solely with their mothers, per the U.S. Census Bureau, the sole burden of childcare often falls onto Black women, which can detrimentally affect their careers. Latina and Black women are more likely to be their family’s sole breadwinners, according to a report from McKinsey. In addition, among those ages 25 to 54, 62% of Black women were unpartnered in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. This means that forcing Black women to carry unwanted children to term could also be forcing them to give up their means of earning a living, without the cushion of leaning on a partner’s income, given that Black women often do not raise their children in two-partner households. Eliminating abortion access for women, but Black women in particular, increases their odds of falling into poverty and being overwhelmed with childcare, and as a result not adding valuable diversity to the office.
Women workers could suffer increased mental health issues
According to the Center for American Progress, women living in states with greater access to reproductive health care have higher earnings, higher rates of full-time employment, and greater job opportunities. But an additional byproduct of abortion access is a higher sense of well-being.
Women who receive “a wanted abortion are better able to aspire for the future than women who are denied a wanted abortion and must carry an unwanted pregnancy to term,” citing BMC (Boston Medical Center) Women’s Health, a peer reviewed health journal. And the majority of surveyed women—99%—said having an abortion was the right choice five years later, in a Social Science & Medicine study.
In contrast, denying women abortions would likely have negative effects on their mental health.
People who were denied abortions reported more symptoms of stress and anxiety one week after the event than those who received abortions, per the University of California, San Francisco’s Turnaway study.
Victims of sexual violence would face mental health and job consequences
Women could likely suffer mental health consequences from carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, emotions that would likely be amplified further in incidences of rape.
“I think limiting women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion access, is violence against women,” Mason told Fortune. “And in the case of a woman who was sexually assaulted or experiencing intimate partner violence, not allowing her to be able to have abortion access does have a definitive impact on her mental health and well-being but also her labor force participation.”
The correlation between sexual violence and female labor participation has been documented in countries such as Zimbabwe, Germany, the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. Sexual violence is associated with a 6.6% decline in female labor force participation and a 5.1% decline in wages, according to the American Economic Review. When an assault is followed by an unwanted pregnancy that the mother is legally mandated to keep, the effects could be psychologically devastating in addition to the previous suffering and work penalties.
Statistics on the incidents of rape that end in pregnancy are scarce and have not been updated for at least the last 20 years. However, in 1996 the national rape-related pregnancy rate was 5% per rape among victims of reproductive age—ages 12 to 45, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Hatton believes that overturning access to safe abortions will amplify the ramifications of sexual violence against female workers.
“In addition to physical trauma, sexual violence has long-term mental and physical health consequences, including depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and more,” Hatton told Fortune. “The negative consequences of such violence—which are already incredibly harmful and long-lasting—will only be prolonged and deepened if women are forced to keep pregnancies resulting from that violence. Not surprisingly, such consequences will negatively affect women as workers as well as women as human beings who have a right to autonomy, equality, and freedom from degradation.”
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