What Economics Can (and Can't) Tell Us About the Legacy of Legal Abortion

Research suggests Roe v. Wade left the U.S. with fewer births, fewer poor children, and maybe less crime. But economists still have yet to crack some the biggest questions about the decision's impact, explains Wellesley College Professor Phillip Levine. 615_Supreme_Court_Statue_Wikimedia.jpg

(Wikimedia Commons)

America's abortion debate won't ever be resolved by an economics paper. But that doesn't change the fact that child-bearing and fertility are deeply entwined with not just our demographic growth, but also women's  professional lives and families' financial health. So with the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade falling this week, I called up Wellesley College Professor Phillip Levine to get a sense of what we do and don't know today about the economic impacts of legalized abortion. 

A leading researcher on the topic, Levine explained that while there are couple of settled facts, there's still an amazing amount that, decades after the Supreme Court's landmark decision, is still murky. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

I'd like to start with the broad question: What do we know for sure about how the legalization of abortion impacted the economy?

I think the first thing that we can learn from the research that's been conducted is that abortion legalization clearly had a dramatic impact on women's fertility. It wasn't necessarily clear a priori that was the case. People had talked about illegal abortion being so prevalent that once it was legalized it wasn't obvious it would have much of an impact. But that's just not true. It had a very large effect. A reasonable estimate is that American women's fertility fell on the order of about 5 percent in direct response to abortion being legalized. That's the average effect. For certain population subgroups, it was much larger than that. So you're talking about a 10, 12 percent reduction in fertility for teenagers, for African American women. In certain pockets, certain segments of the population, there was just a very dramatic impact on women's fertility. And that is something which I think we certainly know.

A second thing I think we could say we've learned -- and this may not come as a surprise either -- but if you're having changes in fertility of that magnitude, the characteristics of the children who are born are different than they otherwise would have been. It's very difficult to believe that the women who chose to have an abortion and didn't have a child because of that were randomly selected in the population. And so, because of that, the lack of random selection, the children who were born were different than the ones who would have been born otherwise.

Living standards of children growing up were very different as a result. Fewer children grew up living in poverty, fewer children grew up in single parent households, fewer children grew up in households headed by welfare recipients. In some sense, you can think about following that cohort's path through life into things like educational attainment, labor market outcomes. You observe increases in college graduation, lower rates of welfare use for the children themselves, reduced likelihood of becoming a single parent themselves. These are outcomes for the children who were born in the early 70s that we observe 20 years later, that we observe for the cohort as a whole. Because it's a different group of children born relative to those who would have been otherwise. That's not to say that's a good thing, that's just what happened.

Is it fair to call those economic benefits?

I think this is an incredibly sensitive topic, so I want to avoid using terms like ... "benefit." Different children were born. An empirical fact is that the ones who were born are the ones who were more likely to have better economic outcomes. The value judgment on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is something I don't want to get into.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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