How the Overturning of Roe v. Wade Stands To Financially Harm Women

Graphic: W+G Creative
Today marks the 27th annual Equal Pay Day, which the National Committee on Pay Equity started in 1996 to highlight the gender wage gap—a gap that very much persists today. According to the latest numbers from Pew Research, for every dollar a man who works full-time earns, a woman makes just 82 cents. (Over the past 20 years, the gap has narrowed by only 2 cents. If it continues to follow the same trajectory, the gap won’t close until 2111, according to the American Association of University Women.)

Equal Pay Day’s March 14 date is by design—it symbolizes how far into the New Year a person who identifies as woman would have to work to make what a man-identifying person made the prior year. However, that date pushes back even further when the numbers are stratified by race and ethnicity: for Black women, the date becomes July 27; for Latinx women, it’s October 5; and for Native American women, it’s November 30.

It’s worth noting that these statistics also lack some much-needed nuance. They don’t factor in the costs of invisible labor, for instance, which disproportionately falls on the shoulders of people who identify as women. That labor includes components that are physical (like housework), mental (such as managing the family calendar), and emotional (as in maintaining a healthy relationship with their partner). In short, the contributions to society from woman-identifying people continues to be grossly undervalued.

Widening the pay disparity even further? Motherhood. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: It’s called the “Motherhood Penalty,” a term sociologists coined in 2001 research. Full-time working mothers typically make 74 percent of what fathers make, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). That's due to a number of factors, including breaks in employment to give birth and care for children and—shocker!—sexism.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, we may see that pay gap grow, says Andrea Johnson, a lawyer and director of state policy, workplace justice, and cross-cutting initiatives at NWLC.

“The decision to have an abortion impacts a person's financial well-being, their job security, their workforce participation, and educational attainment.” —Andrea Johnson, National Women’s Law Center

“The decision to have an abortion impacts a person's financial well-being, their job security, their workforce participation, and educational attainment,” says Johnson. “These points in life where you have opportunities to make your family more economically secure are really put at risk when you don't have that ability to decide if, when, and how to have a family.”

Indeed, the financial implications of restricting abortion access reach further and wider than a weekly paycheck (though that is an undeniable biggie). What are the costs that women and birthing people will likely face in a post-Roe world? We spoke with experts to learn the financial effects of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Deepening the class divide

The Dobbs decision upended nearly 50 years of precedent set by Roe v. Wade; it removed the constitutional right to an abortion, giving states the power to regulate aspects of abortion not covered by federal law. As a result, abortion is now illegal in 12 states, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. The ruling was a crushing blow to the right to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy for folks with a vagina, to be sure, but the reality is, abortion access had become increasingly restrictive in many states in the years leading up to the ruling, due in large part to gestational limits.

One study found that in 2020 (i.e., pre-Dobbs), the shortest gestational limits in the U.S. were set at eight weeks. Yet, according to the research program Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, at least one-third of birthing people don’t know they are pregnant until they’re six weeks along. (People of color and people living with food insecurity are more likely to find out past seven weeks, research has shown.) That means that in the states with the strictest laws, a pregnant person would have only had a week or two to decide to have an abortion, find a facility, investigate costs and potential insurance coverage, and plan for the appointment.

The financial component of that tight timeline is notable because the birthing people most affected by limits and bans—both pre-Dobbs and now—are those from poor (living at less than the federal poverty level) and low-income (living at 100 to 199 percent of the poverty level) households, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

"When your state bans abortion, it becomes a matter of whether you can travel out of state fast enough or financial resources to order pills online.” —Diana Greene Foster, PhD, reproductive sciences professor, UCSF

“People who have resources can get care quicker,” says Diana Greene Foster, PhD, professor in residence at University of California, San Francisco Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. "When your state bans abortion, it becomes a matter of whether you can travel out of state fast enough, or if you have all the information and financial resources to order pills online.”

The notion of traveling for an abortion incurs a number of considerations and financial costs for a pregnant person. After finding an abortion provider (a hurdle all its own, given that a single facility may serve its own state in addition to several abortion-ban states), there’s the matter of securing transportation for what could amount to a multi-day trip.

For instance, in Houston, where abortion has been banned completely, one of the closest full-service abortion facilities is nearly 800 miles away in Carbondale, Illinois, according to Sheila Katz, PhD, associate professor of sociology at University of Houston and author of the book Reformed American Dreams: Welfare Mothers, Higher Education, and Activism. Dr. Katz notes that many low-income pregnant people do not have the resources, like a car, to make the trip. There’s also the prospect of taking time off from work, which could pose issues from both a lost paycheck and job-security perspective. “It's very common for a boss [in low-paying jobs] to say, ‘Well, if you need those two days off, you might as well just not come back,’” Dr. Katz explains.

Then there’s the matter of who will watch the kids who may already be in the home. Research shows that 60 percent of people who seek abortions have already had at least one child. That child would not be allowed to accompany the mother into the procedure. If a family member or friend isn’t able to babysit, that could be another added cost (if not a total non-starter).

Once you also factor in travel expenses, including gas, lodging, and food, and the bill becomes nearly insurmountable for someone working, say, a minimum wage job. That doesn't even include the cost of the abortion itself, which, if not covered by insurance, averages out to $575.

Adding to the already existing racial disparities in abortion access, the Hyde Amendment bans federal funds from being used for abortion in 34 states and the District of Columbia. This means people on Medicaid—which covers a disproportionate share of people who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—will not have their abortion care covered in these areas.

And according to Dr. Katz’s research involving low-income women in California, few have someone to whom they can turn to borrow the money they need to travel or pay for an abortion. “In my research, I asked low-income women, ‘If you need a small amount of cash, less than $50, who could you ask?’ Two-thirds of them said no one,” Dr. Katz says. When she upped the ante to $500, only one out of the 45 respondents (a woman who grew up in a middle-class family but qualified for welfare after becoming pregnant) said they would have someone to turn to.

In that case, anti-abortion activists would surely argue that the best course of action for a pregnant person under financial duress would be to have the baby and put it up for adoption. But that’s rarely what happens, and that sentiment completely ignores the physical and emotional tolls of nine months of pregnancy.

“Very few people choose to place a child for adoption—less than 10 percent of those who are denied an abortion,” says Dr. Foster, who studies the effect of unplanned pregnancy on birthing people's lives. “Choosing to have an abortion over carrying a pregnancy to term makes a lot of sense, given the very real physical health risks of pregnancy and childbirth.” (The U.S. has one of the highest maternal mortality rates among high-income countries, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and those rates among Black and Native American people are three and two times higher, respectively, than those among white people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which cites health-care inequalities and systemic racism as causes.)

So then what? If a person can’t afford an abortion, what kind of financial future can they expect after giving birth and raising their child?

A murky monetary outlook

In 2008, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco began recruiting birthing people for a study unlike any that had been undertaken before. With the help of 30 abortion facilities across the U.S., 1,000 abortion seekers—some who received abortions and some who were turned away because they fell outside the gestational limits and went on to give birth—were identified and accepted into the study. Over the course of five years (up through 2016), research assistants interviewed the participants periodically about all aspects of their life, including their mental health and financial standing.

The findings of the Turnaway Study (published in the 2020 book The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women and the Consequences of Having – or Being Denied – an Abortion, authored by Dr. Foster, who led the study) revealed that it’s not just abortion seekers who face steep financial obstacles after being denied. Rather, their immediate family and, by extension, future generations also experience a trickle-down effect.

“A leading reason for abortion is wanting to take care of kids that she already has,” says Dr. Foster. “Those existing kids do worse if their mom is denied an abortion—we see it in [the kids'] ability to achieve developmental milestones, and we see it in the [reduced] chance that that kid is living in a household with enough resources for basic living needs.”

The costs of raising a child, which according to estimates from the Brookings Institute, now amount to nearly $311,000 over the course of 17 years.

The long-term ramifications are clear: Participants who were denied an abortion were four times more likely to live under the federal poverty level and three times more likely to be unemployed, according to the study. They were also more likely to experience a drop in their credit scores and an increase in debt, as well as more negative financial actions like bankruptcy and eviction on their record—all of which affect a person's ability to get future lines of credit and housing. Children born because their parent couldn’t get an abortion are more likely to live below the federal poverty level than the children later born to a parent who had received an earlier abortion.

Then there are the actual costs of raising a child, which according to estimates from the Brookings Institute, now amount to nearly $311,000 over the course of 17 years. And that doesn't include the cost of college or a transition into adulthood.

Further complicating matters is the lack of a social safety net: Birthing parents who live in states with abortion bans also tend to have fewer programs to help them. “There’s no support for women once they have the baby,” says Dr. Katz. “The welfare rules in Texas are some of the most stringent in the entire country. Even if the baby is able to get on to federal programs, like WIC or Medicaid, the mother is not.”

Dr. Foster agrees: “We have the worst support for young children and parents in this country,” she says. “There’s an appalling lack of health care, lack of paid leave, lack of childcare… We see an increase in use of public assistance, but it is very short-lived, and that's because there are still some states that time you out, even if your household is in need and there's not enough money to pay for housing and food. It's just grotesque. This is a moral issue, regardless of abortion.”

One small glimmer of hope may be expanded access to preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, which President Biden called for in his State of the Union address this year and included in his 2024 budget proposal (though earlier attempts to pass pre-K program legislation through Congress were unsuccessful). Yet, experts agree that affordable childcare is an important factor in a person’s ability to care for and support a child—whether they were planned or not.

“Lack of high quality, affordable childcare is a massive issue and contributor to the wage gap,” says Johnson. “It deeply impacts women's ability to participate in the workforce and the number of hours they can work, if they don’t have reliable childcare.”

Ultimately, women and all birthing people will always be at a disadvantage—physically, emotionally, and financially—if they don’t have full autonomy over their reproductive health.

“Being denied an abortion you seek has years of negative impact on your financial and broader wellbeing,” says Leila Abolfazli, a lawyer and director of national strategy on abortion rights at NWLC. “This goes to the whole point of women knowing what's right for them; they know their lives. It impacts their current children and has negative implications for their family. This is why, in the end, I think people really support the right to abortion because the decision about whether to bring a child into your family is so fundamental to your future.”

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