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.
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.