The Dallas mother who would go down in history as Jane Roe, the pseudonymous half of Roe v. Wade, never got an abortion.
By the time her case had wound its way through the courts, her child was already a toddler who had long since been placed for adoption.
But for 50 years the law that Roe — real name Norma McCorvey — helped create would protect that right in America for pregnant women and others who came after, until being struck down by a Supreme Court decision Friday.
The decision to get an abortion is a personal one. It can be a relief, a burden or anything in between. Even McCorvey’s relationship to the cause was murky, as she morphed from abortion-rights icon to anti-choice activist, before renouncing her anti-abortion stance in a documentary shortly before her death in 2017.
But on a larger scale, advocates argue the law, by granting U.S. women the right to decide if and when to give birth, had an outsized effect on everything from health to economics. Beyond the debate about whether the procedure was right or wrong, they say, is a world that had been undeniably changed by its existence.
It’s a key point with which those who are anti-abortion would disagree. As American economist Caitlin Knowles Myers points out, in the case that would eventually prompt Roe to be overturned, the state of Mississippi argued “there is simply no causal link between the availability of abortion and the capacity of women to act in society.”
But this is how Janet Yellen, the first woman to lead the U.S. Treasury, put what she argued would be the economic fallout, during a Senate hearing last month: “I believe that eliminating the right of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades,” she said.
So what do we know about how Roe v. Wade, and abortion access more generally, has changed the landscape for women?
And what stands now to be lost?
Prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973, it’s hard to know exactly how many abortions in America were happening, as they were illegal in much of the country.
One of the best attempts to figure it out happened just a few years pre-Roe, in North Carolina, according to the a paper published in a journal called the Perspectives on Reproductive Health in 2003. There, researchers conducted a randomized response study in North Carolina to figure out how many induced abortions were happening behind closed doors.
They then used that to conclude that were in the neighbourhood of 800,000 abortions happening nationally every year, in line with other estimates at the time.
Beginning when a handful of states began to liberalize abortion laws in the 1960s, the number of legal abortions began rising sharply, hitting roughly 1.6 million in 1980, a trend that continued into the 1990s.
Indeed, some economists have argued that the first states to repeal their laws saw a reduction in births of between four and 11 per cent, particularly among teens and women of colour.
But the paper argues that Roe’s impact on public health was always bigger than its impact on demographics — in other words, it was more effective at helping women than it was at reducing births, because many of the legal abortions would have been done illegally just a few years earlier.
“The initial increase in the number of legal abortions was likely due to the declining demand for illegal abortion services as legal abortion became available,” the paper reads.
Despite the current polarization of abortion, it’s actually a relatively new fight, says Shannon Stettner, an Ontario-based abortion historian who co-founded the Social Science Action Research Group.
In the early days of North American settlement by Europeans, abortion was relatively unrestricted, she says. More rules were created in the late 19th century as medical doctors became more established as a profession.
North America wasn’t alone in this, either, points out Lara Cousins, who specializes in sexual and reproductive health and rights for Oxfam Canada, a global anti-poverty organization. “When countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia were colonies of England and France and other colonizing powers, they often inherited these Victorian-era laws that affected a lot of things, among them, restricted access to abortion.”
But from the beginning, Stettner says, it was those who were more vulnerable, whether by race or class, who were less able to access services.
Roe v. Wade disproportionately benefited nonwhite and unmarried women, who made up an increasing proportion of people getting abortion.
The proportion of women having abortions who were nonwhite increased between 1972 and 1999 (from 23 per cent to 44 per cent), as did the proportion who were unmarried (from 70 per cent to 81 per cent). By enabling unmarried women of racial minorities to safely terminate unintended pregnancies, Roe v. Wade disproportionately benefited them.
The most obviously benefits, advocates point out, is that fewer women die of complications as a result of unsafe abortions.
Take Uruguay, a small South American country renowned for its beaches. Between 1995 and 1999, almost a third of maternal deaths in the country were the result of unsafe abortions. That number was even higher among vulnerable women, who were more likely to resort to unsafe methods, according to a 2019 article in BMC Women’s Health.
But in 2012, the law was changed to allow abortion in the first trimester, and the procedure, usually done using medication, was provided at government-run facilities across the country.
In 2016, an article in the International Journal and Obstetrics remarked that by then, the country had the second lowest maternal mortality rate in the Americas, after Canada.
“There are these promising ripple effects from decriminalization,” says Cousins of Oxfam.
“But when women and girls are able to make choices regarding if and when they want to become pregnant, how many children they want to have and when, that then has effects for how they can engage in public and economic life.”’
In terms of the economic impact of abortion, the history of legalization in the United States is “both a canonical and salient example of a natural experiment,” writes Myers, a professor of economics at Middlebury College in Vermont, alongside Morgan Welch, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution, a policy non-profit in Washington.
Myers had previously done research that suggested that abortion legalization reduced the number of women who became teen mothers by a third, and teen brides by a fifth.
Meanwhile, a study in the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2020 matched people to their credit reports and found that when people were turned away from a wanted abortion, their finances took a hit. Overdue debt increased by 78 per cent and public records related to bankruptcies, evictions and court judgments increased by 81 per cent.
“If Roe were overturned, the number of women experiencing substantial obstacles to obtaining an abortion would dramatically increase,” Myers and Welch wrote in 2021.
With Roe overturned, the landscape is set to shift again. A study published in 2019 in a journal called Contraception estimated that should the law fall, the national abortion rate would fall by roughly a third, as women are required to travel potentially hundreds of miles further to access care.
Under this scenario, which assumed that roughly half of the country would outlaw abortion — at the time, eight states had so-called trigger laws, which were set to outlaw abortion as soon as Roe fell, while 13 more were expected to follow suit — as many as 143,000 women would find themselves unable to access the service.
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