I regularly tell my students these days, just like I used to regularly tell my clients, if you have an idea for a policy change in America, be prepared to successfully make your case purely on economic terms. In other words, trying to convince policy makers the change that is being proposed is simply the right thing to do usually won’t get the effort very far. Proponents for change need to show them the money.
When government and politics in America get disconnected from this unwritten virtue, bad decisions are often made. We love to talk about our loyalty to freedom, the flag and the Constitution, but when it comes to change, real change, the dollar is king. This is how it should be. It is this component of public policy debates that make most issues, and virtually every newsworthy one, relevant to all of us.
The abortion debate should be no different. There is plenty of data. It is easy to understand. But the loudness of the passions have prevented a rational economic dialogue from having the prominence it deserves. Oh, and one other big thing is keeping this discussion on the back burner: the court doesn’t care.
Sheelah Kohatkar succinctly wrote about it on Wednesday in the New Yorker. “Whether and under what circumstances to become a mother is the single most economically important decision most women will make in their lifetimes,” says Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College, widely recognized as a leading scholar on this issue. But during oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court last December in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the discussion of the economic impact was cut off by Chief Justice John Roberts so he could discuss the fifteen-week deadline for an abortion, in which he seems so interested.
The State of Mississippi makes the argument that the Roe v. Wade decision and the subsequent decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood are no longer relevant. It argues that access to contraception, availability of child care, and the existence of family leave laws are the things that make the economics of the issue different today than they were fifty years ago. Myers and 153 other economists filed a brief in the case obliterating that shallow perspective.
On contraception, in a 2019 report, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 45% of all pregnancies in America are unintended. This is in an era of great available and advanced contraception to which Mississippi refers. Most of those pregnancies were “wanted later,” while only 18% were unwanted. 42% of those pregnancies end in abortion. I’m sorry Justice Roberts and Mississippi, but that is “relevant.”
The moral debate on the issue leaves few Americans without an opinion on the matter. But what parent is oblivious to the cost of their children? When 49% of abortions today are being performed on women at or below the poverty level, and an additional 26% being just above that line, the cost of those children to all of us is obvious and beyond debate. But the economic impact of and outlook on those women is the thing rarely discussed.
Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, explained it in simple terms this week. Emily Peck reports for Axios that Yellen said eliminating a woman’s right to seek an abortion would have “very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades.”
The proponents of these extreme bans in many of the states, including Indiana, lose the economic argument. They have had much of their success because the intensity of the moral debate has provided their vacuous economic one an inordinate amount of cover. The court is a great venue for this void–the court often doesn’t do economics. As much as we think politicians generally, and legislative bodies specifically, ignore the broad implications of their policies, they are designed to account for these things. The public often fails to hold them to account, but that’s just one of many failings for which we have no one else to blame.
What the leaked opinion that was written by Justice Samuel Alito was predictably light on was the impact of his proposed decision. I’m betting that if pressed about it, the five justices who apparently support the overturning of Roe and Casey would give an answer that could easily be interpreted as “it’s not our responsibility.”
It is a near-perfect storm of devastating consequences being made on behalf of the moral and political whims of the minority of Americans. It appears those who think it doesn’t matter to them are going to have to suffer until it does.