For nearly two months, the nation has been enraptured by a wave of anti-abortion laws that have been sweeping through the nation. Even in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker has affirmed the constitutional right to have an abortion, advocates on both sides of the issue packed into the State House on Monday to debate the merits of the ROE Act. If passed, the bill would allow abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if a physician determines it is necessary to protect the physical and mental health of the woman, or if fatal fetal anomalies are detected. The bill would also allow minors to receive the procedure without a parent or judge’s consent.
At Monday’s hearing, elected officials like Attorney General Maura Healey and Rep. Lori Trahan pointed to the tide of anti-abortion laws as evidence of why Massachusetts needed to move to expand abortion access in the state. Others made moralistic arguments about the right of women to choose what to do with their own bodies. Speaking on Boston Public Radio on Wednesday, economist Jon Gruber said that in addition to the legal and ethical principles of the debate, economics should not be overlooked.
“Economics doesn’t have the final answer about whether abortion should be legal or not, but economics has a lot to contribute about a particular question, which is: If you restrict abortion ... what does it do to the reproductive rates in America, and what does it do to the kids that are unborn or are born?” Gruber said.
According to Gruber, his own research has shown that restricting abortion access has not only a negative impact on women, but could create unwanted externalities, such as increased crime rates and dependence on state-sponsored welfare decades later.
“I’ve studied it in my own work,” Gruber said. “If you look at the kids who are born when abortion is taken away ... they look like they lead more difficult lives. They’re 40-50% more likely to be born into poverty, to be born to single mothers, to be born to mothers on welfare, and you can follow along what would’ve happened to those kids.”
Gruber also pointed to international evidence that shows that women are more frequently penalized in the workplace simply for having children, even when the decision was made purposefully. He said that despite more efforts to promote co-parenting, women still carry an unfair amount of the burden of raising a child, an issue that can be all the more devastating if they did not want to give birth in the first place.
“Women before they have kids don’t suffer nearly the wage penalty they do after they have kids, and that’s because despite the increase in the shared child burden throughout the world, women still bear the burden of dealing with kids even in modern society,” Gruber said. “If abortion access is restricted, that’s going to make, for low income women, their lives much more difficult.”
As a counterpoint to what happens when women do not have access to abortion, he cited studies that show that when access to contraception is widely available, women on average gain more economic freedom and mobility.
“[Studies] found that when the pill became available, fertility fell ... and women’s economic outcomes improved enormously,” Gruber said. “It was an enormous positive benefit towards the progression of women into the labor force and the success of women in the labor force.”
To Gruber, in the debate surrounding abortion rights, the economic answer is straightforward: restricting abortion will create more negative externalities than positive ones. His claim is supported by a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
“What is clear from the economic evidence is that if abortion access is restricted, it’s going to hurt women’s prospects in the labor market,” Gruber said. “It’s going to result in unwanted kids who will be growing up in more poverty, and, as a result will lead lives that are less economically successful.”