The early '70s provide hints of what to expect from a post-Roe America

·4-min read

In a 6-3 decision on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that had secured the federal right to obtain an abortion for the last 50 years — paving the way for a patchwork of state laws on reproductive rights.

Even before the decision leaked this spring, economists have looked to a narrow window of time in the early 1970s for hints about what America might look like with the decision now overturned.

That closely watched window began in 1970 when five states — Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington — stepped to the front of that era’s debate and legalized elective abortion.

The Supreme Court extended those rights across the country just three years later with the Roe v. Wade decision, which found the Constitution's guarantee of privacy protects the right to an abortion.

Since then, economists have been keenly focused on that three-year window because abortion was legal in some places but not in others — the exact scenario that experts are expecting in the months and years ahead. Economists say 1970-1972 is especially illuminating because, according to Middlebury College economist Caitlin Myers, it’s “a very narrow window when abortion is legal in some places and not others and interstate travel matters.”

The years 1970-1972 “afforded social scientists a quite nice, what we call, natural experiment,” Myers added in a recent interview before Friday's decision was handed down.

Myers spearheaded an amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court last year arguing that the legalization of abortion had dramatic effects on the ages when women became mothers, the level of education they attained, and their participation in the labor force.

While many focus on the moral arguments around abortion, Myers and some of her colleagues have long studied the economic implications. Myers says the evidence is overwhelming that having at least some access to abortion from 1970 to 1972 began to help women’s economic lives — a trend that increased in 1973 and beyond.

Twenty-two states currently have laws on the books that will likely restrict the legal status of abortion for their residents, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a source for research and policy analysis on abortion in the U.S. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have specific laws on the books protecting abortion rights.

View of pro-Choice demonstrators, may with signs, as they march on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, November 20, 1970. Among the visible signs are several that read 'Abortion, A Woman's Right to Choose,' and one that reads 'Defend Shirley Wheeler,' referencing the first woman prosecuted under Florida's abortion laws (and possibly the first in the United States); she was convicted the following year. (Photo by Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images)
The scene of a pro-choice demonstration on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC in 1970. (Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images)

‘Increased the labor force participation rates of females’

The brief organized by Myers of 154 economists and researchers, delivered to the Supreme Court in 2021, summarizes scores of studies around how abortion access shapes women's lives.

The document also returns again and again to research on that 1970-72 window for a look at the period of transition from when abortion was not legal to when it was available nationwide after 1973.

The research has found that the legalization of abortion in 1970 led to birth rates dropping by about 5% in certain states relative to the rest of the country.

And the effects on women’s economic lives were measurable.

One study conducted by David E. Kalist using population surveys found that abortion laws in force from 1969-1972 “increased the labor force participation rates of females, especially of single Black women.”

Protestors, one holding a child, stand around a placard reading 'Free legal abortion' during a mass demonstration against New York State abortion laws, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, 28th March 1970. (Photo by Graphic House/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Protesters during a mass demonstration around New York State abortion laws in March 1970. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Another study published in the National Bureau of Economic research found the effects of state abortion reforms in 1970 were noticeable, again especially on Black women, and “appear to have led to increased schooling and employment rates.”

‘We have a really good idea of how women will respond’

The situation in the months ahead could be very similar — but with women giving back some of the economic gains of recent decades — with only around half of U.S. states expected to keep abortion legal .

“We have a really good idea of how women will respond to the resulting changes," Myers says, “and our best prediction based on ample evidence on the effects of travel distance, is that about three quarters of the women who want abortions will still find a way to get out of the states that ban.”

But that leaves about a quarter of women in those states who, because of distance and cost, likely won’t be able to travel and get the abortion. The resulting lack of choice about when and how to have a child is expected to set many of those women back economically, leading to what Myers terms a likely “shock to poverty” in the months and years ahead.

Myers and others say the effects of a potential decision will be measurable but not necessarily a macroeconomic shock as the Supreme Court is allowing individual states to keep abortion legal. But, she warns, “My answer would be really different if we were talking about a national ban.”

This post, originally published on June 21, has been updated to reflect Friday's Supreme decision.

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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