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The economic costs of the overturn of Roe v. Wade

So the Supreme Court has completely overturned ROE v. Wade as well as the 1992 Casey decision which had reaffirmed Roe. I have to say, I was surprised that Roberts did not dissent once he failed to convince the Majority that support for the draconian Mississippi law would be the better way to kill Roe “slowly” with “death by 1000 cuts.” It appears that the five misogynist Justices (and yes, women like Coney Barrett can be misogynist just like men!) were drunk with their power and made Roberts come to them. (This prompted some observers to claim that Roberts is now Chief Justice in name only --- that Thomas now runs the Court!)

Most people who were appalled by this ruling, see this as a profoundly moral issue relating to women’s rights. As someone remarked, you cannot take an organ from a dead person without appropriate paperwork but you can now, in the post-Roe world, force a woman to carry a zygote through the nine months that it takes to become a fetus and finally a born human being, even though pregnancy itself is a medically dangerous process. In fact, a comparative study in 2012 found that “Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.”

[Elizabeth Raymond and David Grimes, “The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth in the United States,” available at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22270271/ For details of recent US experience with maternal mortality see Eugene Leclercq and Laurie Zepheryn, “Maternal Mortality in the United States: A Primer,” The Commonwealth Fund, Issue Brief and Report, December 16, 2020, available at

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-brief-report/2020/dec/maternal-mortality-united-states-primer]

The anti-Roe, anti-Casey ruling also raises the more general issue of government intrusion into personal decision-making. The extreme right wing wants no interference in the right of anyone (even an abuser) to own a gun --- even a machine gun --- but wants to interfere in a woman’s decision as to whether to become a mother. The hypocrisy knows no boundaries.

However, I wonder how many listeners to my commentaries are aware that this anti Roe, anti Casey ruling also has important economic ramifications. Because this Supreme Court decision will force women to continue with unwanted pregnancies – there will be an adverse effect on the US economy not just the individual woman and her family.

According to Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen, (testifying before the Senate Banking Committee) "Roe v. Wade and access to reproductive health care, including abortion, helped lead to increased labor force participation,… It enabled many women to finish school. That increased their earning potential. It allowed women to plan and balance their families and careers."

[See Morgan Smith, “Janet Yellen: Overturning Roe v. Wade would be ‘very damaging’ to the economy, women,” in CNBC Make It, May 11, 2022 available at https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/11/janet-yellen-overturning-roe-v-wade-would-be-very-damaging-to-the-economy-women-.html]

Let’s unpack this a bit. Labor force participation is the action by an individual of seeking a job. All employed people and those actively seeking work are deemed (by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) to be “in the labor force.” Before the 1960s, women’s labor force participation was limited by the idea that a woman’s main role was as home-maker (parent, help-mate to a man) as well as outright discrimination. This steadily changed over the next two decades. Female labor force participation was 38 percent in 1960, 43 percent in 1970 and 52 percent in 1980. It capped out at 60 percent in 2000 and only dipped slightly to 58 percent in February of 2020 before the pandemic hit. Even with the pandemic, the fall in female labor force participation was only down to 57 percent.

[For all this data see the interactive chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis available at https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300002]

In addition to the increase in labor force participation (which remember only measures the desire of a particular group to work) the unemployment rate (those people in the labor force who cannot find a job) has been extremely low recently which means that furture withdrawals from the labor force means lower production.

According to an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court by over 100 economists, women who lose access to abortion are more likely to end up in poverty. Absent Roe, many will have their educations derailed. Many clinics that will close also gave women preventive health care. The loss of access to such care will lead to long term poorer health outcomes. The reversal of Roe will have the opposite effect from the positive one highlighted by Secretary Yellen’s testimony. Lower female labor force participation --- caused by women having to bring up another child (or bring up a first child) --- will reduce the economy’s production and therefore growth. Many of these women will be single parents with implications for the future of their children.

Slower growth affects all the rest of us. It isn’t just labor force participation. Women forced to bear a child they are not ready to support will more likely experience a lifetime of lower productivity because they never got to finish their education. Thus, those in the labor force will contribute less than they would have absent the protections of Roe. Increased poverty among these women will lead to increased CHILD poverty --- causing a longer term reduction in potential productivity.

The increased poverty of women and children will require increased federal and state spending to help the poor --- whether it will be more Medicaid spending, more spending on food stamps, or an expanded TANF program --- temporary assistance to needy families.

Of course, the expanded spending will be better than if the spending did not increase --- and certainly there is evidence that many red state legislators and governors have no interest whatsoever in actually helping the women who bear these children take care of them.

(This reminds me of the sick joke that so-called pro-life politicians believe that governments’ responsibility to defend life begins at conception ----- but ends at birth! Former Representative Barney Frank [D. Mass] is usually credited with coming up with this quip.)

However, despite the stinginess of too many State Legislatures, there will be some increased spending because of automatic federal responses to rising poverty. More Medicaid spending will make sure the poor will have at least some access to healthcare. More food stamps spending will give the poorest of families some nutrition. TANF spending will help families pay the rent, buy clothing and school supplies and even a bit of entertainment. The increased federal spending to help the poor will also create jobs for providers. (And the food stamps spending has always been an important element of income for farmers.)

In the months ahead, the various labor shortages will make a decline in labor force participation especially problematic. Until the inflationary pressures resulting from the uneven recovery from the pandemic-induced recession quiet down, this is the worst possible time to reduce the labor force participation of any significant number of people.

Meanwhile, an increase in the percentage of families with children in poverty headed by women whose educational goals have been thwarted because they delivered an unwanted child will constitute a long term loss for the entire economy due to a lifetime of low productivity --- a lifetime that could have been much more productive had Roe never been overturned.

Red state voters who elected State Legislatures and Governors pledged to stamp out abortion --- Women who voted for Trump and got this radical Supreme Court ---- you will reap what you have sowed.

[Additional note: I did not mention this in my oral commentary but it is also something to consider. With Roe gone, abortion is going to be illegal is about half the states in the country. The energy and expenditures on lawyers and travel by women from states that have banned abortion to those states that protect those rights as well as the diversion of attention by some states’ attorneys general and the ensuing efforts to prosecute those who have abortions despite the new laws will constitute a tremendous waste of human effort and money.

(For the example of Illinois currently surrounded by states that are poised to outlaw abortions, see Allison McCann, “Illinois Clinics Prepare for a Rush of Patients,” The New York Times, June 30, 2022: A18 and the maps on page A1. According to the article there were 50,000 abortions in Illinois in 2020 with 20% performed for patients coming from out of state --- and that was BEFORE Roe was overturned!)

Think of what happened in the years of Prohibition after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. People didn’t stop drinking. Beer and spirits continued to be manufactured. It was just driven underground, providing a bonanza of “business” for organized crime and a big increase in governmental efforts to suppress this now illegal set of businesses. All of the enforcement efforts and the extra effort by the (now criminal) producers were wastes of human resources (similar to the wastes of the decades long war on drugs in the past 30 years!).

Abortions will not stop (though of course there will be less of them than under Roe) – they will become the new “underground economy” in those states that ban it. This will be particularly true as the abortion pills become more readily available (many will be manufactured and mailed from Vienna). As a result, the post office will be charged with trying to intercept or at least track such packages so that local ambitious prosecuting attorneys can catch the newest crop of Supreme Court created “criminals.” Though the moral and political questions are most important, it is also useful to remind ourselves that the entire economy will be affected negatively. Maybe some percentage of the “I don’t care” group will think more deeply especially if the negative economic consequences affect them or family members personally.]

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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