Friday’s Supreme Court decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson has effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, paving the way for upwards of 26 states to ban abortion care. There will be countless negative implications of this devastating blow to bodily autonomy. But one of the most seismic, yet overlooked, will be the constrains on economic freedoms.
Bodily autonomy interacts with self-determination across society, including the economy.
Bodily autonomy interacts with self-determination across society, including the economy. When workers of any gender don’t have a voice or control over their lives, they are disempowered in the labor market, too — and this can have a negative effect on the American economy writ-large.
An amicus brief led by Caitlin Knowles Myers of Middlebury College and signed by 154 economists, including myself, details how abortion care strengthens economic security.
But to understand how, we must first remember how much the US economy has changed since the 1973 Roe decision. The labor market has been plagued by stagnating wages, a decline of good quality jobs and stymied economic growth as corporate power prioritized shareholder value and outsized profit rates. One major factor in these trends has been the precipitous loss of worker power from the decline of unions and weak social infrastructure that would give better outside options, such as workers unemployment insurance, healthcare, and paid family and medical leave.
An economy where workers don’t have power is also one rife with market failures. Declining worker power has exacerbated monopsony, where workers are paid less than the value they create. This then distorts the economy, as it suffers from deadweight loss and operates under its potential. In this way, giving workers more power over their lives and jobs is corrective; when the economy is balanced to give workers more power, economic outcomes improve.
The link between bodily autonomy and economic opportunity is likely intuitive to anyone who can get pregnant. In the 49 years that women had a legal right to an abortion, they had greater assurance and control over when and whether to start a family, allowing them to better share in economic growth. This is because planning one’s family shapes one’s deployment of their skills and interests, and research shows how abortion access expansion in the 1970s was directly linked to increased educational attainment, greater labor force participation, and higher earnings.
Conversely, state restrictions on abortion since Roe have limited the ability of people to make decisions about childbearing. My own research has looked at how targeted restrictions of abortion providers, known as TRAP laws, had the inverse effect on women’s career paths. In states with TRAP laws, women are less likely to go into higher-paying occupations year over year, even when controlling for other factors such as education and local economic conditions. Not being able to switch jobs is not only bad for workers and their families, but also businesses and the greater economy: A lack of dynamism can potentially reduce overall economic productivity when there is a misallocation of talent.
The leaked opinion tried to argue that abortion access has been detrimental to Black communities. In addition to removing Black women’s agency, this claim ignores that research shows the opposite.
On top of this, in a labor market marred by racial and gender discrimination, bodily autonomy is an especially relevant economic issue for women of color. The leaked opinion tried to argue that abortion access has been detrimental to Black communities. In addition to removing Black women’s agency, this claim ignores that research shows the opposite: bodily autonomy is even more critical for Black women and other women of color. For example, economists Kelly Jones and Marya Pineda-Torres found that living in a TRAP law state prior to age 18 reduced the likelihood that Black women were able to start and finish a college degree, inevitably limiting opportunities for economic security.
Thankfully, high-profile union drives happening right now are informing shaping the economic debate. Unions have long been a powerful force in mitigating economic disparities by gender and race; just one example is how union membership is associated with support for policies that improve social and economic conditions in Black communities.
Unions can continue this important tradition by centering reproductive rights in their labor to platforms for advocates for workers’ access to abortion care in their communities, with coverage from employers. In a polarized post-Roe America, it may be our best source of hope.