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59% Of Women Seeking Abortions Are Mothers Facing High Poverty Risk

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When I taught economics at the University of Notre Dame, I learned that banning abortion in effect violates a keystone of Catholic social teaching that gives a “preferential option to the poor” and vulnerable. In America, young mothers are among the most vulnerable among us.

I was honored to teach at Notre Dame for 25 years. There I befriended activists, many liberation theologians, and others who were “pro-life.” They were deeply committed to the sanctity of life and often opposed the death penalty for the same reasons they opposed abortion. A group of women faculty, once we were tenured, advocated for our health insurance to cover Viagra and invitro fertilization. Very pro-life.

Many of my colleagues and friends also were consistent with their connection to Catholic social teaching, which assesses all public policy for its impact on the poor. In other words all policy decisions must be made giving preferential option for the poor. Catholics are called to represent those who cannot speak for themselves.

In a country where most people are not Catholic and the laws are secular, the legality of abortion was troubling to them. Some tried to change the law, but others opened their hearts and wallets to women who had unwanted pregnancies. I never met Amy Coney Barrett, but I was close to her colleagues across the college lawn in the Law School. They relied on facts and logic to make up their mind and their commitment to Catholic social teaching to guide their work.

Recently, I joined 154 of my professional colleagues and signed the amicus brief as one of the friends to the court supporting continuing legal abortion in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Why were economists opining on this? Well, we amici of economists and researchers with extensive experience in “causal inference” – the practical meaning of statistical results – know that keeping women from legal abortion hurts their life prospects.

Social science research using significant advances in statistical methodology since abortion was made legal suggests women benefited from the legal abortion. (The details can be found in our brief.) Specifically, if women control their own fertility, that helps women advance socially and control their economic future.

Amicus briefs are expert reports written for the court as one form of evidence. When I signed the brief I was hoping to speak as directly as I could to Justice Coney Barrett, because I felt we had common ground in wanting to help poor women. I and other economists were in effect saying, “Justice (and Professor) Barrett if you make abortion illegal or even more severely restricted, research predicts the poor and vulnerable will be hurt.”

Who Seeks Abortions?

The research about who gets abortions really surprises people:

–       59% of women who seek abortions are already mothers;

–       Women who seek abortions are more than three time as likely to be poor; 49% are poor while the national poverty rate is about 12%;

–       75% of women who seek abortions are low income;

–       55% of women who seek abortions report a recent disruptive life event such as the death of a close friend or family member, job loss, the termination of a relationship with a partner, or overdue rent or mortgage obligations.

These women also overwhelmingly lack access to paid maternity leave or to affordable childcare.

Abortions Help Women

The research shows abortion helped women socially and economically.

–       Abortion legalization particularly helped young and Black women. Studies show that “the expansion of abortion access … reduced teen motherhood by 34% and teen marriage by 20%” and access to abortion increased the probability that women facing unintended pregnancies attend college and enter professional occupations.

– Black women experienced a 28 to 40% decline in maternal mortality due to abortion legalization. And, “young women who utilized legal abortion to delay an unplanned start to motherhood by just one year realized an 11% increase in hourly wages later in their careers.

–       Abortion reduced birthrates with a downstream effect of letting families invest in the children they have and for women to manage their work life.

–       If abortion were to made illegal or abortion access was limited to states that protected abortion women seeking abortions would be harmed because they would have to travel great distances at high cost to access clinical abortions. Poor women and vulnerable women would be most impacted, and some theologians say that violates the first principle of Catholic social justice—the preferential option for the poor.

Sadly, we haven’t done enough to improve family planning and stop unwanted pregnancies. For many women, affordable childcare is unattainable and employment policies often don’t accommodate working parents. America is one of “only two countries without a national paid maternity leave policy.” Many nations (including Bulgaria and Latvia) offer more than a year of paid leave to new mothers, while the United States provides for only twelve weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

Therefore,  we urged the Court to keep abortion legal and society to keep it rare. Banning or severely restricting abortion especially hurts poor women.

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