Abortion access has been shown–for decades–to enhance the economic, educational, and workplace opportunities of women, making it crucial to equality and gender justice. But now, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing politicians to outlaw abortion or severely restrict it.
The Supreme Court took away a fundamental constitutional right–a right that people have relied on for nearly 50 years and a right that is critical to the ability of women and all those who can become pregnant to be equal in our society. The devastating fallout of this morally bankrupt and legally unjustifiable decision is already becoming apparent and will be felt for decades, impacting our ability to achieve equality in society.
Access to abortion has advanced equality
The ability to decide whether and when to become pregnant and parent is crucial to determining one’s own life’s path, pursuing personal and professional goals, and safeguarding economic security. Access to abortion enables women to complete high school and higher levels of education, improves labor force participation, and enables economic independence.1 After abortion was legalized, women—particularly Black women—experienced significant increases in school graduation and employment rates.2 Pregnant individuals who obtain an abortion are less likely to experience economic hardship and insecurity. In fact, people who are denied an abortion are nearly four times more likely than those that get a wanted abortion to live below the poverty line.3 Women living in states with greater access to reproductive health services like Medicaid coverage of abortion have higher median wages, are more likely to be managers, and are less likely to work part-time jobs.4
Existing gender inequities make access to abortion that much more critical to achieving equality and gender justice
One argument urged by those seeking to ban abortion–and highlighted by the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe–is that abortion is no longer necessary thanks to advances in gender equality, including developments in contraception and laws offering paid leave and protecting against pregnancy discrimination.5 This argument is simply untrue: Not only are such laws far from universal in the United States, but the patchwork of existing laws promoting gender equality has not eradicated gender disparities, nor do they remove the substantial economic, educational, and professional burdens of being forced to continue a pregnancy.
Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term exposes people to the risk of pregnancy discrimination and discrimination based on gender stereotypes, such as the stereotype that mothers are less competent and committed to their jobs.6 Over 26,600 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state-level agencies between 2012 and 2016.7 Pregnant workers often have requests for reasonable accommodation denied and are then fired, forced to quit, or pushed into unpaid leave.8 Women of color and immigrant women, particularly Black and Latin women, are at greater risk given their overrepresentation in jobs where pregnancy accommodations are often denied, such as retail, food services, and health care jobs.9 Black and Latinx pregnant workers are also more likely to have physically demanding jobs, which carry an increased risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight, both of which can be associated with life-long health conditions for the child.10 Pregnant women have lower employment rates than nonpregnant women,11 and may also face disparate terms and conditions of employment, unequal access to benefits, interference with promotions, or harassment.12
Pregnant workers face this discrimination in the workplace despite laws specifically designed to address this problem.13 For example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, yet many courts have interpreted it and similar state laws narrowly. This allows employers to refuse to accommodate workers with medical needs arising out of pregnancy.14 Courts have also been reluctant to require accommodations for those with physical limitations and medical needs arising from a typical pregnancy under the Americans with Disabilities Act.15 And while pregnant workers may access unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), many want or need to continue earning an income but can do so only with reasonable accommodations, which the FMLA does not address.16
Childbirth and parenting costs
Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term exposes people to high child care costs–and potentially parenting costs–which only compound for families that already have children and are denied abortion care. Forty percent of women cite financial concerns as a reason for an abortion, and nearly 30% cite the need to focus on parenting existing children.17 Childbirth expenses alone can reach tens of thousands of dollars,18 and pregnant people without health insurance (disproportionately women of color)19 may bear these costs in their entirety. The total costs of raising a child are substantial, accounting for on average 27% of low-income families’ gross income.20 For a pregnant person who already has children, raising additional children means fewer resources for each child’s needs.21
The lack of affordable, high-quality child care is also a key driver in parents’ economic insecurity. The pandemic caused many child care providers to close and according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the child care workforce is missing nearly one in ten workers compared to February 2020.22 Yet even if families are able to find care, the cost of that care remains out of reach for many. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child care is affordable if it costs families no more than 7% of their income on child care. However, low-income working families with children under age 5 who pay for child care spend an average of 35% of their income on that care.23 The lack of high-quality, affordable child care falls particularly heavily on Black women due to overrepresentation in the low-paid workforce and increased likelihood of being the primary breadwinner in their family.24
Government programs designed to help offset child care costs are often inaccessible.25 The federal government and over half the states offer tax assistance for child care expenses that are related to employment, but this assistance falls short of families’ needs–especially low- and moderate-income families. As currently structured, the federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) provided an average credit of $124 in 2018 for families with incomes under $15,000.26 Because the credit is not refundable under current law, those with little or no income who need help with child care and other expenses the most will receive little or no benefit from it.27 While Congress passed an expanded CDCTC in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, that provided a maximum credit of $4,000 for one child or $8,000 for two or more children in 2021,28 the expanded credit expired in December 2021. These costs force parents to make impossible choices between paying for pregnancy-related costs, child care, and other costs of raising children, or other necessities like rent and food. While families used the expanded Child Tax Credit to pay for household necessities and expenses in 2021,29 Congress likewise failed to take action to extend the CTC and the expanded credit has expired.
Burdens on working and earning for parents
Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term exposes people who decide to parent to burdens on their working and earning. Having a child often limits an individual’s ability to continue working and advance professionally. Mothers and pregnant people can face a “maternal wall” of bias and discrimination in the workplace.30 They are less likely to be hired, promoted, or trained for management positions and may be viewed as less competent and committed to their work.31 Unplanned births significantly reduce women’s participation in the labor force,32 and the inability to obtain an abortion undermines career aspirations and achievement.33
Further, child care responsibilities disproportionately fall on women and lead to lower workforce participation.34 For mothers who work, child care needs can cause them to decline new responsibilities, pursue fewer promotions, or move to part-time work, which reduces the likelihood of being promoted.35 Low-paid jobs in particular are less likely to have paid parental leave or predictable and flexible work schedules, so parents are often forced to leave such jobs to provide child care.36 Nearly one in four women working part time in low-paid jobs in 2018 reported that they did so due to child care problems or other family or personal obligations.37 Women of color, who are already overrepresented in these jobs, also frequently have less predictable schedules than similarly situated coworkers, making arranging child care incredibly challenging.38 The pandemic has also disproportionally forced women to shift from full-time to part-time work, especially due to increased caregiving responsibilities, rendering them ineligible for unemployment benefits in many states if they lose their job.39
Women with children accordingly face a “motherhood penalty” of lower earnings.40 Overall, having a child leads to both immediate and long-term decreases in women’s earnings.41 By contrast, a year of delayed childbearing increases wages by 3% and career earnings by 9%. Unsurprisingly, the gender wage gap that all women face is even larger for mothers, who make just $0.75 for every dollar paid to fathers;42 and for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers, that number is $0.46 for Latina, $0.50 for Native, and $0.52 for Black mothers.43 The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gendered disparities, as women—especially women of color—have borne the brunt of caregiving obligations and job losses,44 and mothers have disproportionately gone to work providing essential services yet have been paid less than fathers in the same front-line jobs.45 Banning abortion threatens to widen these disparities still more.
Limited opportunities for pregnant and parenting students
Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term exposes students to harm and barriers to completing their education. Pregnant and parenting students face discrimination and harassment that can limit their educational opportunities, including hostility, low expectations from teachers and administrators, and pressure to leave school.46 In fact, only 11.3% of young women who are parents are enrolled in school compared to 45.4% of young women overall.47 Punitive absence policies can push pregnant and parenting students out of school because they may have to miss class for medical appointments, childbirth, recovery, and child care.48 Pregnant and parenting students often face economic constraints that prevent them from going to school, like lack of transportation, child care, and money for necessities like food.49 Parenting college students, who are disproportionately Black women,50 often must also juggle work with their parenting and academic responsibilities: 44% of student parents work full-time while enrolled in college.51 Given these pressures, despite the motivation of many young parents, young adults who give birth as teens are much less likely to obtain a high school diploma or to finish college than their counterparts.52
Access to abortion has been key in advancing gender equality and gender justice. Banning or severely restricting abortion takes away a person’s ability to decide whether to continue a pregnancy and threatens their equality and ability to participate–and thrive–in our society. The Supreme Court’s decision allowing politicians to ban abortion will have far reaching and devastating impacts on gender equality for decades to come.