Abortion and women in America: what the numbers tell us

18th August, 2022

“We do not pretend to know how our political system or society will respond to today’s decision,” wrote Samuel Alito in explaining the reasoning of the US Supreme Court as it reversed the constitutional right to an abortion. Perhaps not, but some facts are clear enough.

First, the ruling is more than just a symbol. The right to a legal abortion is one that has been used by tens of millions of women, and the ruling will curtail that right in meaningful ways. One in four American women will have an abortion at some stage in their lives. (This estimate is based on patchy data, because the US government has shown a revealing lack of interest in collecting solid numbers.) Nearly half of pregnancies are unintended and nearly half of those unintended pregnancies are terminated; overall about one-fifth of pregnancies end in termination.

There are nearly 30 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 living in states that have already banned abortion, or are likely to do so soon. If they are not facing a medical emergency, these women may still travel to states where abortion is legal. The evidence, however, suggests that many cannot or will not. (An amicus brief filed with the court by a group of pro-choice economists is a good guide to this and other evidence.)

Second, women who choose to abort a pregnancy generally do not regret their decision and often avoid economic distress as a result. Our best evidence for this is from the widely reported Turnaway Study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Francisco. For a decade, these researchers studied women who had wanted terminations but were close to the gestational limits for the clinics they had sought out. Some made the cut-off and were given the abortions they chose; others missed the cut-off and were turned away. Not quite a randomised trial, but nearly so.

The Turnaway researchers found that women who were denied an abortion were much more likely to experience financial distress, more likely to live in poverty, more likely to end up with an abusive partner and less likely to say they were in a “very good” romantic relationship a couple of years later. Two of them died in pregnancy. None of the women who received an abortion died.

Broader research suggests that the very position of women in society is at stake, because women’s lives are profoundly affected by their ability or inability to control their fertility. For example, the economist Amalia Miller once published a study about the impact of random factors delaying motherhood by one year for a woman in her twenties. (These random factors included failure of birth control, delays in being able to conceive, and the timing of miscarriages.) In each case, the unplanned one-year delay in motherhood was associated with a rise in lifetime earnings of 10 per cent.

Similarly, the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz tracked the growing availability of the contraceptive pill to young women, state by state. They found that as each state opened up access to the pill in the late 1960s, young women were more likely to enrol in professional courses, and their wages increased. The reason? The pill allowed women to delay both marriage and motherhood.

Access to contraception and access to terminations are not the same thing, but, when we are looking at the impact on women’s careers and relationships, lessons learnt in one case carry over to the other. No surprise, then, that the evidence suggests that the expansion of abortion rights in the 1970s reduced teen motherhood and increased women’s access to college and professional careers.

To those who assert that the foetus has an absolute right to life under almost any circumstance, none of this evidence will matter. But anyone who believes there are competing rights to be balanced should take a close look at the likely effect of a major change to a right that many millions of women have relied on.

In any case, the argument for absolute rights cuts both ways. I have never forgotten reading Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous 1971 essay, “A Defense of Abortion”. Thomson asks her reader to imagine waking up one morning in hospital to find you have been plumbed into someone else’s circulatory system. He has a severe but temporary kidney condition, but you alone have the right blood type; your kidneys are now cleaning both your own blood, and his. Not to worry, though: all you need to do is wait nine months and you can safely unplug and be on your way. Thomson’s point is that while it might be nice, even heroic, to keep this fellow alive, you are not obliged to do so. Unplugging yourself immediately is not murder, even though he will die as a result.

I am now a very rusty moral philosopher, so all I will add is that Thomson’s essay brought me up short because it made me try to imagine something for the first time: what is it like to be pregnant when you don’t want to be? We have moved beyond the philosophers now. For better or worse, the question is now in the hands of the voters.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 22 July 2022.

The paperback of The Data Detective was published on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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