The Economics of Abortion in a Post-Roe World

Since a draft opinion written by Justice Alito indicating that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, much of the debate has been philosophical, dealing with women’s bodily autonomy versus the rights of the unborn, and what kind of different laws states might pass now that that the issue of abortion has been returned to elected officials. However, it’s also an issue with economic consequences. State-level abortion bans will affect the economy as a whole and women in particular in several different ways.

What effect, exactly, does legal abortion have on women’s ability to partake in the economy? 

This is a tricky question. One may think that studying women’s labor force participation, salaries, and years of education before and after Roe v. Wade would provide some clues, but correlation does not equal causation. Many things changed during the 1970s that affected women’s roles in the economy. Abortion is one variable, but attributing the entire post-1973 rise in women’s labor force participation to legal abortion would be intellectually dishonest.

In recent decades, economists have approached this is through so-called natural experiments: Five states and the District of Columbia had already legalized abortion before Roe v Wade. Comparing the outcome for women in these states after abortion was legalized compared to the rest of the country (or comparing each state to a similar state that did not have legal abortion pre-Roe) can, at least in theory, allow us to isolate the effect that abortion legalization has on women in the economy and society as a whole.

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