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The end of Roe will cause ‘chaos,’ financial disaster for many women, experts say

June 24, 2022, 2:21 PM UTC

Last year, when Mississippi argued in favor of its 15-week abortion ban in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the state claimed that women have made such great economic strides in the past five decades that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision establishing the constitutional right to an abortion, is no longer necessary.

Julie Rikelman, litigation director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, made the exact opposite argument: Decades of research, she says, show that abortion access is critical to women’s equal participation in society. Things might be better for women now than they were 50 years ago, but overturning Roe would set that progress back.

With the Supreme Court’s decision Friday in favor of Mississippi, the U.S. may see just how far back women’s financial and economic outcomes will regress. The Court ruled not only to uphold Mississippi’s ban, but to overturn Roe completely.

We hold that Roe and [Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey] must be overruled,” writes conservative Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The court’s decision—an unprecedented move that takes away a 50-year-old constitutional right—will spell financial disaster for many women, particularly those who already have the fewest resources, economists and other experts say.

“I see chaos,” says Leila Abolfazli, director of federal reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), which filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the right to abortion. “I see economic security chaos, legal chaos, fear, betrayal.”

In fact, over 150 economists filed an amicus brief (separate from NWLC’s) with the court in Dobbs, highlighting the decades of economic research that they say clearly demonstrates the causal connections between abortion access and women’s economic opportunities.

The research shows how abortion access “profoundly” affects women’s financial lives by determining when and under what conditions they become mothers, says Caitlin Myers, economics professor at Middlebury College and a signatory of the amicus brief.

Legalizing abortion in the 1970s gave women more control over those conditions. The benefits have been far-reaching: Abortion access leads to fewer teen pregnancies, which has “ripple effects” throughout the rest of the woman’s life, says Meyers. Women’s education levels, labor force participation, and future earnings all increase, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently noted during a Congressional hearing. Teen marriage also falls, as does infant mortality.

“We know that Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion did have very dramatic effects on the arc of women’s lives,” Meyers says. “And we know that abortion access still matters.”

‘Long-term economic security implications’

Taking away abortion access leads to worse long-term economic implications.

The Turnaway Study, which began in 2007, is one of the most famous to look at the financial and life effects of abortion access. In it, a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, tracked over 1,000 women who went to abortion clinics across the country. Some of the women were just under the clinic’s gestational limit and were able to have the procedure, while other missed the deadlines—sometimes by just a few days—and were turned away.

For up to five years after, the researchers checked in with participants and were able to compare various outcomes from the two groups. The researchers, led by demographer Diana Greene Foster, found the women denied abortions were more likely to experience years-long economic hardship and had a higher chance of living in poverty compared to the other group. Their older children, as well, were more likely to live in poverty than the children of the women who received abortions.

“They have really shown that women who seek abortions and are denied face long-term impact to their financial security,” says Abolfazli. “Those who seek abortions and are denied are likely to be poorer…It has all of these long-term economic security implications.”

Other research has found those who are denied abortion access are more likely to live in poverty and more likely to use social services like Medicaid. As the Turnaway Study found, the economic hardship can last for years, says Sarah Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, who worked with Foster on a subsequent study on the effects of abortion access.

“Some of the gains we’ve seen for women since the ’70s can be undone,” says Miller.

The cost of motherhood

Motherhood itself—even when a child is wanted—is expensive. On top of the cost of raising a child—which the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts at well over $200,000—there is the “motherhood wage penalty,” in which mothers earn less than women who have not had children. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but mothers also earn less than men.) A mother’s income decreases by 4% for every child she conceives or adopts. Men, on the other hand, see salary increases when they have a child.

And despite Mississippi’s argument that women have more access to workplace benefits like paid leave, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid sick leave or paid parental leave. In fact, just 23% of private industry employees had access to paid family leave in March 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most new mothers return to work by the time their baby is three months old. Many return in fewer than two weeks after giving birth.

Childcare is also expensive. Parents are spending an average of $10,174 per child annually, according to a recent report. Even well-off families can have difficulty paying for childcare and often decide that one of the parents—typically the woman in a heterosexual relationship—should leave their job to care for the kids full-time.

This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with roughly 5 million Americans reporting they are out of the workforce because they were caring for children earlier this year. Those who leave the workforce to care for kids face a 7% wage penalty, according to Payscale. Women take a larger hit: The gender pay gap for women who quit because they lacked adequate childcare options is $0.73 to every $1 earned by men who were also unemployed for childcare reasons, per Payscale.

All of this financial stress is compounded for single mothers and for low-income women, the latter of which are more than five times as likely as more well-off women to experience unplanned pregnancy, according to the Brookings Institute. The few protections that employers do offer—whether it’s paid leave or something as simple as working the same hours each week—don’t typically apply to hourly workers.

“It’s also going to increase inequality,” says Miller. “If you’re a professional-class woman, you’re going to face barriers and have more difficulties, but you’ll still have an OK chance at maintaining control over when and if you start a family.” That won’t be the case for those who can’t afford to travel to get the procedure.

Mississippi doesn’t require employers to provide paid family leave—despite arguing in the Supreme Court case access to paid leave is one reason Roe is no longer necessary—and is one of the few states that has not expanded Medicaid. It ranks last in the country in state health performance, based on measures like accessibility and quality of care, and it has the worst infant mortality rate in the country.

Wider economic implications

Beyond the impact overturning Roe will have on individual women’s finances, abortion restrictions will cost the U.S. economy, to the tune of about $105 billion annually, a 2021 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found. This is the result of reduced earnings, increased job turnover, and time out of the labor force. 

The effects won’t be uniform across the country; some states will fare worse than others due to their abortion restrictions. The IWPR estimates that that Mississippi alone could face over $1 billion in economic losses due to abortion restrictions.

Additionally, lower rates of educational attainment and labor force participation among women denied abortions have obvious implications for the economy, experts say. There is already a shortage of workers for all of the job openings in the U.S. Reducing women’s labor force participation during their childbearing years will exacerbate that.

“What does it mean in 2022, after decades of pushing toward women’s equality, that we regress as a country so far that we say a state is allowed to control such a significant personal decision,” says Abolfazli. “That has far-reaching implications that reverberate across the country.”

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