On the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a Right Under Threat

(Photo: AP/CQ Roll Call/Bill Clark)

Pro-choice protesters chant in front of the Supreme Court on January 22, 2015, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

January 22 marks the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that established the legal right to abortion in the United States. But what does the right to end a pregnancy mean if you can’t afford it? Access to abortion care and other family planning services are inexorably linked with women’s economic security. Going into the 2016 election, elected officials would do well to keep that in mind.

The Roe v. Wade decision, along with a 1965 high court ruling that legalized contraception, gave many American women autonomy over when and whether they would have children. This decision carries significant economic weight for women, who increasingly play the role of primary or sole breadwinner in American families.  One 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly one-third of U.S. couples between the ages of 18 and 34 put off marriage or postpone having a baby for economic reasons.

Anti-abortion politicians have failed to overturn the Roe decision, but they have imposed so many new restrictions on abortion that the ruling has become effectively meaningless. In the last two years, the number of abortion restrictions passed in state legislatures has increased exponentially. In fact, more than one-quarter of the state abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade were imposed between 2011 and 2015.

These unnecessary restrictions can have drastic consequences, especially for the most economically vulnerable women, who are forced to travel long distances to find a health-care provider, to attend multiple unnecessary appointments to receive care, and who are largely denied insurance coverage for abortion. When policymakers place severe restrictions on Medicaid coverage of abortion, research shows, it forces one in four poor women seeking an abortion to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco, recently finished a longitudinal study conducted over five years. As reported in Slate, the study tracked what happened to women who sought an abortion, but were unable to receive one. The unprecedented study concluded that a woman who seeks an abortion but is denied one is more likely to fall into poverty than a woman with more ready access to abortion.

Research data also show that the more people struggle economically, the higher their rates of unintended pregnancy. This is not because these women are unaware of their options, but because the trappings of poverty can create insurmountable barriers to consistent reproductive care.

It’s popular on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail to talk about a “women’s economic agenda.” Such talk usually focuses on the issues that have historically hindered professional progress for women. These include pregnancy discrimination, discrepancies in pay between men and women for equal work, and the need for paid family leave. President Barack Obama sounded some of these themes in his latest State of the Union address.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, has been a leader in championing women’s economic equity, as has Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another Democrat. Left out of the discussion, however, is the critical role that family planning and comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, play in women’s economic well-being.  

That’s a tone-deaf oversight for the one in three women who will have an abortion in their lifetimes. Politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to carve abortion out of this discussion and dismiss it as a “wedge” issue. But women make reproductive decisions in the context of all the unique circumstances of their lives. Politicians who view this issue in isolation do so at their peril. A 2014 survey released by the National Institute of Reproductive Health showed that three-quarters of likely voters not only support abortion access, but strongly link it to a woman’s financial stability and equality.

To be sure, such issues as pay equity, family leave, and pregnancy discrimination are exceptionally important. But it’s also imperative to roll back the restrictions that increasingly interfere with women’s reproductive health decisions. Abortion access is a key element of women’s economic and personal success. On the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it’s time to reclaim the ruling’s promise that women have a constitutional right to make reproductive health decisions that profoundly impact the economic future of their families and communities.

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