The bright line between "social" and "economic" issues in American politics is perhaps blurrier than one might think. One study shows the economic effects of abortion, finding significant economic consequences for women who carried unwanted pregnancies to term.
The Turnaway Study is a five-year analysis of women who received abortions and those who were turned away because their unborn babies were legally too old to abort. The study, which is still ongoing, comes from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a think tank at the University of California, San Francisco.
According to an ANSIRH presentation of preliminary findings to the American Public Health Association this year, both groups of women had similar economic circumstances prior to seeking abortions. One year later, however, 76 percent of women who had been denied abortion were on public assistance, compared to 44 percent in the group who had undergone abortions. In addition, 67 percent who had not had abortions were under the poverty line, compared to 56 percent in the abortion-receiving group. Only 48 percent of those who had not terminated their pregnancies were working full-time, compared to 58 percent in the cohort who received abortions. The vast majority of women who did not abort kept their babies.
Though these differences are sizable, the study's lead investigator says economics was not the initial focus of the study.
"We were looking for mental health differences. That was the main point of the study," says Diana Greene Foster, director of research at ANSIRH and the study's lead author. But one year after the women either received or were denied abortions, the study did not find any significant difference in anxiety or depression levels between them and those who had terminated their pregnancies.
Rather, the big differences appeared in two major areas, says Foster.
"There are big physical health differences but even bigger socioeconomic differences," she says. Shorter-term complications like infection and hemorrhage affected the women who give birth, but the lasting complications were financial. Though many participants in the study were partnered, Foster points to the women who found themselves suddenly living alone with children as vulnerable to new financial difficulties.
Single mothers are far more likely than partnered parents to live under the poverty line. According to the Census Bureau, over 34 percent of people in families headed by single women in 2011 lived under the poverty line, compared to 13 percent for all families.
Having a child makes it easier to slip beneath the poverty line. As of 2011, the poverty threshold for an adult under 65 years of age was just over $11,700. For one person with one child, the threshold is around $15,500.
The threshold also goes up with each child, whether in a single- or two-parent household. That's important because, like many women in the larger population seeking abortions, many women in this study already had children and feared the financial consequences of having yet another child.
"Women denied an abortion were 25 percent more likely to report they didn't have enough money for food, housing, and transportation over the two years [studied]," says Foster.
Though ANSIRH is neither a pro-life nor a pro-choice organization, the results of this study undoubtedly could be seen as ammunition for pro-choice advocates. Women denied abortions, it would seem, may contribute less to the economy and are more likely to need taxpayer dollars in the form of public assistance.
Still, abortion is still in large part a moral issue, and pro-life advocates remain strongly committed to reducing the number of terminated pregnancies annually.
"We already have 1.2 million abortions a year in this country, which is an astonishing number," says Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, a group that works to eliminate abortions. He believes that combating unwanted pregnancy is a matter of changing people's behavior, rather than turning to "stopgap measures" like abortion and contraception.
As for the economic data presented in ANSIRH's study, Scheidler believes that there are alternatives to looser abortion laws.
"What I think a study like this really points to is the need for economic policies that will provide real opportunity to women so that they won't have to turn to abortion," says Scheidler. He counts among these "authentic health care reform" for an inefficient system. Aside from that, he also says that women facing unwanted pregnancies can turn to charity organizations, including crisis pregnancy centers.
Whether the issue is framed in economic or moral terms, what is certain is that it affects plenty of Americans. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that studies reproductive issues, around half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, and by age 45, nearly one-third of American women will have an abortion.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.