Some Abortion Opponents Make Economic Arguments. They’re In for a Fight.

If you believe abortion is murder, its economic consequences are beside the point. Morality trumps all.

Still, many opponents of abortion make economic arguments along with legal and moral ones — asserting, for instance, that access to abortion has not improved or has even hurt the economic prospects of women. These abortion opponents seem to be trying to win over the ambivalent middle: people who are not enthusiastic about abortion but also worry that restricting it will have harmful social effects.

Since abortion opponents have chosen to engage on the battlefield of economics, it’s fair to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their case from the point of view of economics, quite apart from the question of whether abortion is right or wrong on moral grounds.

Let’s consider three briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could result in the overturning of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to an abortion. Two of the briefs are from opponents of abortion and one is from a group supporting abortion rights. All three make economic arguments.

The main brief of the State of Mississippi, whose 2018 law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy is at issue in Dobbs, argues that judicial precedent “gives no good reason to believe that decades of advances for women rest on Roe, and evidence is to the contrary.” It says that “numerous laws enacted since Roe — addressing pregnancy discrimination, requiring leave time, assisting with child care, and more — facilitate the ability of women to pursue both career success and a rich family life.”

A friend-of-the-court brief submitted by 240 “women scholars and professionals, and pro-life feminist organizations” amplifies the state’s case and delves more into economic theory. It disputes the Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that “the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” The brief says that women were advancing in society before Roe — challenging the argument that the court’s decision was critical to their advancement — and that women have continued to advance in recent decades, a period when the rate of abortion was steadily declining.

Since changes in abortion law occurred at the same time as changes in culture and technology, it’s hard if not impossible to disentangle which factors were responsible for women’s advancement, the brief says.

The brief also criticizes a body of research called the “turnaway” studies. By comparing financial outcomes for women who received abortions and ones who sought abortions but were turned away, these studies found evidence that access to abortion did improve women’s material lives. But the brief argues that the number of cases was too small to be valid. It also favorably cites a 2016

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