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The Controversial Economics of Abortion Law


When economist Joshua Angrist was a young researcher in the mid-1990s, he saw a wrinkle in the history of abortion law that presented an opportunity for analysis. Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationally with its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, a number of states had already done so. Prof. Angrist, who is now on the faculty of MIT, saw an opportunity to examine the economic and social effects of abortion access by zeroing in on the states that had legalized abortion by 1970—Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington—and several others that had liberalized restrictions.

His paper “Schooling and Labor Market Consequences of the 1970 State Abortion Reforms,” published in the book “Research in Labor Economics” in 2000, drew mixed conclusions. In states that were early in liberalizing their laws, Black women experienced declines of more than 4% in teen-childbearing and out-of-wedlock birth, with associated increases in schooling and employment. White women didn’t see the same effects, however, and even for Black women the benefits didn’t look as powerful later, in states where abortion became legal with Roe.

Researchers have looked at the effects of abortion access on crime, substance abuse, out-of-wedlock births and women’s progress in the workplace.

Last year, Prof. Angrist won the Nobel Prize in economics for pioneering natural experiments like this one, examining the cause-and-effect relationships of different social policies. His study was among the first in a wave of controversial research on the social and economic effects of abortion access across a range of issues, including crime, substance abuse, out-of-wedlock births and women’s progress in the workplace.

Some showed substantial benefits for women and society more broadly, though the results were often disputed. The studies expanded the national debate about abortion beyond the big moral questions about the rights of women bearing children and the rights of the unborn to the broader sociological and economic effects of abortion law. The mixed findings, in turn, turned those effects into another abortion battleground.

These studies are now playing a role in the Supreme Court’s deliberations in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which some expect, based on a draft decision leaked in early May, to lead to a decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

A group of 240 female researchers who oppose abortion have filed an amicus brief saying that abortion access sets women back. They argue that the legalization of abortion coincided with more women falling into poverty, women reporting lower levels of happiness in surveys and fewer women saying they were in satisfying, long-term relationships.


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An opposing group of 154 economists filed their own amicus brief in response, stating that “there is a substantial body of well-developed and credible research” contradicting the anti-abortion brief. They argue that in giving women more control over their child-bearing preferences, abortion legalization led to a range of social and economic benefits for women, including higher educational attainment and more job opportunities.

The economists note that Prof. Angrist’s work pointed to benefits for Black women, and subsequent studies that used the natural experiment of state legalization showed even larger effects. They say that the expansion of abortion access in the 1970s reduced teen motherhood by 34% and teen marriage by 20%, and made women more likely to attend college and enter professional occupations. Overturning Roe, the brief argues, threatens to reverse these and other benefits.

Prof. Angrist was asked to participate in the competing legal briefs but declined. “I didn’t feel like I had a dog in that fight,” he said, adding that his original study “wasn’t a clean set of findings.” He chose to move on to other subjects, and his Nobel Prize was awarded for other research, including a study that used the Vietnam-era draft to examine the effect of military service on earnings later in life.

Still, Prof. Angrist’s paper helped to set off a wave of similar research. The most controversial was a crime study published in 2001 by University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt and Stanford University law professor John Donohue, which argued that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s led to lower crime rates in the 1990s. The study theorized that abortion prevented the birth of many unwanted children who would have become troubled adolescents especially prone to crime.

It was an explosive conclusion, reviled on the right as supportive of abortion and on the left as reminiscent of eugenics. Prof. Angrist said that he was puzzled by the study’s conclusion, given the mixed results of his own study, and several other researchers challenged the findings on technical grounds. Still, Profs. Levitt and Donohue stood by their work. “Now that we have 20 years of data, it is a highly statistically significant finding,” said Prof. Donohue, who signed the amicus brief in support of Roe, though it doesn’t cite his research. Prof. Levitt declined to discuss his research and didn’t sign the brief.

Middlebury College economist Caitlin Myers, who helped to organize the economists’ pro-Roe brief, said that more recent economic research shows that abortion access continues to shape the contemporary U.S. fertility landscape, with important social consequences. “We have good evidence on what happens to women who want abortions when they encounter policy restrictions or barriers of travel distance, and those come from natural experiments,” said Prof. Myers, who studies reproductive policy and has periodically worked as an expert consultant and witness for Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights on legal cases concerning abortion policy.

She pointed to her own research on the effects of a 2013 Texas law that resulted in the closing of several of the state’s abortion facilities. The closing of clinics increased the travel distance to abortion facilities for women in some parts of the state but not others, allowing her and co-researchers to study how rates of the procedure were impacted in different areas.

The researchers found that when the distance a woman would have to travel to the nearest abortion clinic rose from under 50 miles to between 50 and 100 miles, abortion rates fell by 16%. Based on these and other findings, Prof. Myers estimates that overturning Roe would mean that nationwide, about 100,000 women who want the procedure would be unable to reach an abortion clinic in the first year.

“It’s like we start to have two countries: the places where the providers go away and the places where they don’t,” Prof. Myers said. Those most affected would likely be poor women, predominantly young and people of color, in the deep South and the Midwest, she said.

Catherine Pakaluk, an associate economics professor at Catholic University who signed the brief against upholding Roe, argues that this whole approach to the issue is incomplete, because it avoids considering the costs and benefits of abortion for one group she finds highly significant: those who are never born because of it. She says that the economists who cite other social or economic benefits should “say upfront that what we’re about to tell you depends upon neglecting the costs to the unborn child because we don’t think his or her costs count.”


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