Women thrive economically in states with reproductive rights

In Illinois, and in other states, reproductive health care rights have meant higher incomes and better overall conditions for women and children.

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Abortion-rights advocates chant as they march during Rally for Abortion Justice, which is part of the Bans off Our Body nationwide day of action, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, Saturday morning, May 14, 2022. Thousands attended the rally, which was organized in response to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, who supported overturning Roe v. Wade. If overturned, abortion would become illegal in 26 states. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Abortion-rights advocates chant as they march during Rally for Abortion Justice, which is part of the Bans off Our Body nationwide day of action, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood on May 14. Thousands attended the rally, which was organized in response to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, who supported overturning Roe v. Wade. If overturned, abortion would become illegal in 26 states.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In exit polls from the Nov. 8 election, voters reported that two issues stood out above all others: the economy and abortion rights.

For generations, pundits and politicians alike have treated these issues as separate. The former has been viewed as embodying kitchen table concerns that confront Americans of every political stripe. The latter has been perceived as an issue of morality, religion or social equality that is only top of mind for “narrower” subsets of the electorate.

But are they really?

Women made up the majority of midterm voters. Exit polling showed off-the-charts voter intensity around abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn reproductive rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In the six states that entertained specific ballot measures dealing with abortion rights since Dobbs, those in favor of reproductive health care rights won in every case — even in traditionally conservative states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.

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Opinion

When it comes to elections, political consultant James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Could it be that abortion rights are every bit as much an economic issue as a social one? And could the source of this enormous electoral intensity be that voters understand the link between reproductive health care policies and economic outcomes?

Indeed, the data certainly supports such a conclusion.

In a recent study, the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign compared economic outcomes for women and children in Illinois against 20 U.S. states that ban abortion, or passed bans that courts have temporarily blocked. Importantly, these 20 states also severely restricted access to abortion services prior to Dobbs.

After accounting for factors like race, marital status, occupation and geography, ILEPI and PMCR researchers found that working women and children in reliably pro-choice Illinois have substantially better economic and social outcomes.

Illinois women earn 8% higher incomes on average, are 7% more likely to have health insurance coverage, are 16% more likely to have bachelor’s degrees or higher and are substantially more likely to achieve leadership positions in their careers than women in states with restrictive reproductive health care policies. They are also 2% more likely to be employed. Similarly, the data not only showed that women in Illinois are 11% less likely to live in poverty, but that Illinois’ children are 13% percent less likely to experience childhood poverty as well.

Previous economic research has also connected abortion rights with higher college attendance, graduation rates, and employment rates for women. Women who have been denied access to abortion services also experience a roughly 80% increase in debt, bankruptcies and evictions.

Considered along with the generally bipartisan support of abortion rights in state ballot measures over the past six months, these are not abstract data points. They are reflective of the lived experiences of women of all political stripes.

The decision of whether and when to have children is both deeply personal and economically consequential. It does a grave disservice to confine policy debates around reproductive health care to matters of morality or religion when indeed they are proven to be every bit as much of a household concern as inflation, gas prices or the minimum wage.

These economic impacts are even more compelling when considered alongside real-world data that shows access to abortion services does not necessarily increase the number of abortions performed. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, fewer Illinois women sought abortions in 2020 than in 2011. Illinois also has a teen pregnancy rate that is far below a national average that has been driven higher by states that limit access to reproductive health care.

In Illinois — as in much of the country — reproductive health care rights have meant better overall economic conditions for women and for children.

The data establish a clear link between these outcomes, buoyed by the overwhelming intensity around this issue during the midterms. Taken together, they warrant acknowledgment and understanding by any candidate who campaigned on creating prosperity and opportunity for more Americans in the years ahead.

Grace Dunn is a research associate at the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute. Robert Bruno, Ph.D., is a professor of labor and employment relations and director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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