In the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, the Democratic Party engaged in the usual midterm handwringing over the abortion issue, which remains taboo even for progressives. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont cautioned Democrats in early October 2022 against emphasizing abortion in final stretch campaigning, arguing it distracted attention from structural economic issues perceived as more salient to the American middle class and better at inducing working class turnout.
Calls for simple, economics-focused campaign messages are nothing new in U.S. politics. Democratic strategist James Carville infamously reminded team members of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign “it’s the economy, stupid.” But the Ragin’ Cajun, who thirty years later remained relevant enough to crop up in a flurry of Democratic Party text reminders to vote and donate in the 2022 midterms, rounded out the economic argument with two other messages: “change vs. more of the same” and “don’t forget healthcare.”
Today’s Democrats must resist the false and dangerous dichotomy between economic and social issues. Access to comprehensive, timely reproductive care has everything to do with economic well-being. It just requires clearer framing to voters and local policymakers.
Reproductive rights were a front-of-mind issue for midterm voters. An October 2022 Gallup poll found 49% of registered voters identified the economy as an “extremely important” issue in the midterm election. At 42%, abortion was a close second, ranking higher than other hot-button issues like crime, gun safety, and immigration. Even as fears of recession and inflationary pressures loomed large, voters were primed by the summer’s tumult to keep abortion rights in mind.
Ballot measure outcomes from five states also represent more complex undercurrents of the U.S. political landscape than the image of a Congress cleaved roughly in half might suggest. Contrary to conventional wisdom about conservative women voting down-ballot for their party’s candidates and policy platforms, the 2022 midterm election demonstrated greater variability in voter behavior.
In Kentucky, for example, 52.4% of voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have declared there was neither the right to abortion nor requirements to fund it. On the same night, anti-abortion incumbent Senator Rand Paul handily defeated former Kentucky House Representative Charles Booker with 61.8% of the vote. Speaking with similar intensity about abortion rights as he had about economic justice in his unsuccessful 2020 Kentucky Democratic primary bid for the U.S. Senate, Booker failed to connect the two issues clearly.
A paradigm shift in the way we talk about reproductive choice necessitates a clearer quantification of economic impact. A 2021 research study from the Center for the Economics of Reproductive Health at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated state reproductive restrictions cost the U.S. economy approximately $105 billion annually. This stems from reduced labor force participation, diminished earnings, and increased turnover for women ages 15 to 44 years.
Communicating labor market analysis has its limitations, but economists widely agree that unplanned, unwanted, and forced pregnancies harm state and local economies.
In an amicus brief filed by more than 150 economists on behalf of Jackson in the Dobbs appeal, improvements to statistical methodologies and causal inference research allowed researchers to quantify Roe v. Wade’s impact on women’s labor force participation. Amici argued that legalized abortion alone and separate from other factors, such as more widely available contraception, reduced birth rates by 4 to 11%. The impacts were even greater for young women: teen motherhood reduced by 34%, teen marriages fell 20%, and delaying unplanned motherhood had significant impacts on wages and educational attainment. Legal access to abortion enabled women to organize their reproductive and social lives such that short-term economic gains translated into better organized economic lives and long-run wealth-building. Abortion access remains central to preserving those productivity gains.
This data analysis also raises a question of how policymakers can support growth and stability in the U.S. macroeconomy as the Dobbs decision permitted drastic state-by-state variation. There are stark implications for states’ economic development policies, which rely on balancing the brain drain equation to maintain a workforce sizeable enough to fuel growth across new and existing industries. To compete nationally, states must retain homegrown talent while luring in new workers. But income tax cuts, small business subsidies, and other talent attraction schemes are limited in their ability to induce interstate migration in the face of increasingly regressive social policies.
Constraining reproductive choice and access to care is fundamentally at odds with successful regional growth strategies. Yet threats to choice commonly appear together on state GOP platforms. The wave of corporations scrambling to support employee needs after the Dobbs decision represents an attempt to stem the effects of these types of policy pairings that are bad for both women and business.
In the immediate days after the Dobbs decision, larger firms tested the waters of engaging with the abortion issue in an era of heightened political polarization. U.S. employers suddenly faced decisions about full coverage of abortion care under existing health care plans as well as health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for employees required to travel out-of-state to obtain an abortion. The private sector was expected to respond quickly to internal and public pressure, even as the federal and state legal environment remained in flux.
When political institutions fail us on social policy, prominent business leaders are often the only locus of power with sufficient influence to institute a stop-gap measure. We should, however, be concerned about the long-term implications of eschewing engagement with political institutions in favor of corporate social responsibility. Is reframing reproductive healthcare as a choice between a person, their doctor, and their employer truly a long-term victory?
Over-dependence on private sector policy intervention not only undermines the importance of democratic processes but also reinscribes power imbalances of non-white-collar workers. Changes to private employee benefit schemes will do little for the country’s most vulnerable workers, including women working in part-time, contingent, or low-wage positions.
Ceding the project of abortion access to the American C-suite creates a bifurcated reality in which white, affluent women have more control over their personal and economic futures. The economic productivity of lower- and middle-class women will be constrained by their lack of geographic and economic mobility, hampering equitable regional economic growth for decades to come.
Government is meant to tackle problems the private sector or individuals alone cannot fix. The end of reproductive rights as we know it in the U.S. certainly fits the bill. Protecting reproductive rights at the ballot box is the best approach to preventing long-term damage to equitable economic growth. But it requires those who believe in the individual rights-based case for abortion to defend it tooth and nail on grounds of protecting our collective economic future.