The economics of abortion

The week following the women’s marches has been busy. On Monday Trump signed a ban on federal money going to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions, and on Tuesday the US House of Representatives voted to prevent terminations being covered by medical insurance funded by the taxpayer.

The first is the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, or Global Gag Rule, which will stop NGOs outside of the US who offer or even advise on abortions from receiving any money at all from the US government. NGOs will no longer even be able to tell a woman that abortion is legal in her country without losing all US federal aid.

The second is the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, which will prevent women from paying for abortions with their insurance if it’s state funded through Medicaid, or state subsidized through Obamacare. This will affect lower income women the most, as these are the cheapest forms of health insurance.

Abortion is a divisive topic to say the least, and many people already have strong, set opinions on it (though not Trump, who has changed his mind quite a bit). But whatever your moral position, it’s worth looking at the effects of women being able to access abortions on a country’s economy.

One of the biggest effects of legalizing abortion is that fertility levels go down. Since legalization, the overall birth rate fell by 5% in the US directly because of legislation, and within certain demographics (teenagers, African Americans) the rate fell by even more – up to 12%. Although lots of abortions still go on whether or not they’re legal, there are many women who would have a legal abortion but wouldn’t risk a backstreet abortion or pay for going abroad. It’s worth noting that the population of the US is still growing at roughly the same pace as before Roe v. Wade – by a couple of million every year – as immigration has counterbalanced the decline in fertility.

Abortion legalization also changes the kind of children who are born: fewer children are raised in single-parent families, fewer children grow up on benefits, and fewer children grow up in poverty. The Roe V. Wade generation was more likely to graduate from college, make their own living without needing welfare and raise their children alongside a partner. Crime rates fell dramatically around 20 years after abortion was legalized, with many hypothesizing that higher levels of abortion led to lower levels of criminality.

So we know that abortions lower the domestic birth rate and raise average life prospects for the children who are born. But they also lift a burden off the taxpayer. After the Hyde Amendment in the US – a law that restricted federal funds going towards abortions except in the cases of incest, rape or when the woman’s life is in danger - researchers found that the “discounted future public cost… to be almost 100 times the cost of an abortion”. In fact, “for every public dollar spent to pay for abortions for poor women, more than four dollars is saved in medical and social welfare costs over the next two years.”

Although these are US statistics, the general idea is clear: If taxpayers resent paying for abortions, they should be aware that further down the line, they’ll end up paying far more to fund schools, welfare and more. All other things staying constant, making abortions harder to access and more expensive will only make the world a poorer, more crime-ridden and welfare-dependent place.

The Global Gag Rule will be responsible for 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.2 million abortions, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,700 maternal deaths, by 2020, if the loss of aid is not met by other sources. Maybe this is what Trump’s after - he’s said that women seeking abortions should face “some form of punishment” – but you might have hoped he would have prioritized the economy over vindictiveness and politics.