The longstanding U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which has protected abortion access before fetal viability for 49 years, is set to be directly challenged this year.
While often cast as a personal health care and reproductive rights issue, restricting abortion access in the way currently being pursued at the Supreme Court also has significant economic and labor force implications as the ability to plan pregnancies has been linked to lifetime education and pay outcomes.
However, factors involving women’s decreased participation in the workforce and increasingly limited access to child care — both exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic — are being widely ignored by business groups in Michigan and across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on a 2018 Mississippi law that would make most abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which is about two months earlier than the precedent set in Roe v. Wade and confirmed under later rulings. The conservative makeup of the Supreme Court sets the stage for a potential reversal of Roe v. Wade.
In that scenario, abortion could be criminalized in many states, including Michigan, where a 1931 state law could take effect making abortion illegal in most cases and threatening doctors who provide abortion services with up to 15 years in prison. Reproductive rights supporters have mobilized in recent weeks behind a statewide ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in state law.
On average, women left the workforce at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic at disproportionate rates compared to men. The pandemic’s negative effect on working women was more pronounced for mothers, and even more so for women and mothers of color, according to a Women in the Michigan Workforce report released in March 2021.
In recent briefs filed at the Supreme Court, supporters of the Mississippi law restricting abortion access argue that women do not need abortions because of progress made in economic equality. The claim is that Roe v. Wade and later rulings — such as the 1992 case in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — are now outdated in their arguments that abortion rights are necessary for women to equally participate in society both economically and socially.
“Any argument that abortion is not needed is just pure gaslighting,” said Merissa Kovach, policy strategist at American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “The ability to plan and space out pregnancy is linked to lifetime earnings and education. Abortion and reproductive health care access is an economic issue.”
A November 2021 Brookings Institution report compiling research on the economic effects of abortion makes the case that access to abortion continues to be important to women’s lives for economic and professional reasons. The research links lower wages for women who have children compared to those who do not.
Research from 2019 included in the report also found that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, then about one-third of women living in affected regions would be unable to reach an abortion provider. This would amount to roughly 100,000 women affected in the first year.
In September 2021, more than 150 economists and researchers submitted an amicus brief in the current Supreme Court case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They note that expanded abortion access following Roe v. Wade reduced teen motherhood by 34 percent and teen marriage by 20 percent.
“Studies also demonstrate that for women experiencing unintended pregnancies, access to abortion has increased the probability that they attend college and enter professional occupations,” according to the brief, which also notes that access to child care is becoming increasingly difficult for working mothers.
“Contrary to Mississippi’s assertion, for significant segments of the population, reliable and affordable contraception remains out of reach. And for many women, affordable childcare is as illusory as employment policies that accommodate working parents,” according to the brief.
Biz groups quiet
Economic development and business leaders in Michigan and across the country have repeatedly highlighted the need to attract talent to resolve labor shortages that began pre-pandemic but have grown worse during COVID-19.
Kovach says it’s a mistake to consider reproductive rights and health care as niche issues because they are “definitely linked” to economic equality.
“What kind of state are we going to have and who is going to want to live in a state where such a large portion of the population will have very little medical autonomy and ability to make medical decisions for themselves?” Kovach said. “That will really have the greatest impact on their life, education and economic future.”
Despite a growing number of businesses and economic development groups taking strong supportive positions on issues like same-sex marriage and expanded civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community, these same organizations are silent in the current abortion debate.
MiBiz reached out to several West Michigan-based and statewide organizations that declined to comment on the potential economic effects that could occur if half of the population were to lose federally protected access to abortion this year, and how that could affect their career trajectory and ongoing talent issues for employers.
Requests for comment were declined by leaders of Lakeshore Advantage Corp., The Right Place Inc., Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, Women’s Resource Center, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Business Leaders for Michigan and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Ballot initiative planned
Amid the threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned this year, a group of pro-choice advocacy groups comprising the ACLU of Michigan, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan and Michigan Voices formed an initiative called Reproductive Freedom For All. The group filed paperwork Jan. 7 with the Board of State Canvassers to begin a petition drive to amend Michigan’s Constitution to protect reproductive freedom. This would include the right to make and carry out decisions without political interference in matters of pregnancy, abortion, birth control, prenatal care and childbirth.
The Board of State Canvassers will review the proposal language to decide whether it can move forward. If the required 425,059 signatures are then collected, the ballot proposal would be in front of voters in the November election.
However, Kovach noted that the Supreme Court case and ballot initiative timelines could still create a lapse in access to abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Michigan Voices Executive Director Sommer Foster said one of the reasons the organizations banded together on the ballot initiative is its intersecting effect on gender equality and economic justice.
“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic when everything shut down and school shut down that it usually became one parent and usually the mother became the primary caregiver” of children, Foster said. “That affected their work. Access to reproductive health care will also make Michigan more attractive economically. The pandemic has made those conversations more real, too.”