Closing The Gap

3 ways the Supreme Court's decision on abortion could hurt women in the workplace

Protesters gather in Grand Park at a rally organized by The Feminist Front and Generation Ratify protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn federal abortion protections provided under Roe v. Wade on Sunday, June 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.
Jason Armond | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, removing nearly 50 years of federal protections for abortions and giving states the right to make the procedure illegal within their jurisdictions.

The ruling doesn't just change who in the U.S. can get an abortion and where — it affects when, how and under what circumstances people become parents, which could have long-term impacts on their personal lives and careers.

"This decision will completely undermine women's capacities to participate in the economy," says Akila Ka Ma'at, an assistant professor of communication, women, gender and African American studies at George Mason University.

Women's labor force participation rate could plummet 

Abortion legalization has had a direct impact on women's labor force participation rate: Before the Roe decision in 1973, about 40% of women were working or actively seeking a job. This share increased dramatically through the 1980s and remained steady in the years following. Nationally, women's labor force participation rate is now close to 60%

The court's decision threatens to reverse gains American women have made in the workforce, Carole Joffe, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies reproductive health, tells CNBC Make It.

"Some women will have to reduce their working hours, and some will have to drop out of the labor force entirely," she says.

Ma'at agrees, adding that women's labor force participation rate may quickly drop following the court's decision, especially for single mothers and low-wage workers unable to afford child care.

"We're still facing a shortage of child-care workers in the U.S. and we still don't have a federal paid parental leave program that would extend to all women, regardless of their job," she explains. "So if you're forced to have a child, you can't go to work and you don't have access to child care, how would you have money to live?" 

Women able to access an abortion were more likely to hold a full-time job than those denied the procedure, research from the National Library of Medicine shows. And while such research focuses on women, it's important to note that transgender men, gender non-conforming people and others get abortions, too.

It could be harder for women to pursue higher education

Restricting access to safe, legal abortions can raise new barriers for women, especially women of color, to obtain a post-secondary degree. That can lead to increased college dropout rates, which can limit career prospects. 

"All of the advances women have made in entering competitive fields like law, politics  and business, going to graduate programs or additional years of schooling, I mean, that's all going to be severely impacted," Joffe says. "This decision is a real symbolic slap in the face to American women." 

In a working research paper published last year, Kelly Jones, an economics professor at American University, looked at state abortion regular data and determined that a total elimination of abortion access would reduce women's college degree attainment by 5.6%.

Access to abortions, however, increased the likelihood that young women who became pregnant would finish college by about 20%. 

Some women will have to reduce their working hours, and some will have to drop out of the labor force entirely.
Carole Joffe
sociology professor at the University of California, Davis

Abortion access is especially significant for Black women who graduated from college in higher numbers, had a better chance of being in a professional career, and, as a result, saw a decrease in poverty rates when they were able to obtain the procedure, Jones's research found.

Treasury Security Janet Yellen said that Roe v. Wade "enabled many women to finish school" during a congressional hearing in May. "That increased their earning potential," she continued.

The gender pay gap could worsen for working moms 

Without federal protections for abortion, Ma'at warns that the pay gap between men and women could widen and women's lifetime earnings could diminish. 

If women are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, Ma'at adds, "they won't have the time or support to get the kind of degree or job that would help them earn enough money to sustain a family."

As a result, pregnant women who aren't able to get an abortion will fall into lower-paid, part-time jobs, Ma'at predicts. 

A 2019 report from Kate Bahn, the chief economist at the research non-profit Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and a group of professors at different U.S. universities, found that women in states with restrictive abortion laws were less likely to move into higher-paid occupations. 

Meanwhile, if existing abortion restrictions disappeared, the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that women across the U.S. would make about $1,600 more each year, on average. 

It's too soon to tell what the economic fallout from the court's decision will be months, or even years from now. But Ma'at fears the worst: "Women are going to be suffering needlessly because they're having babies they didn't choose to have or can't afford." 

Check out:

How the CEO of Planned Parenthood is preparing for a future without Roe v. Wade: 'We've been planning for this moment for years'

Janet Yellen: Overturning Roe v. Wade would be 'very damaging' to the economy, women

More U.S. companies could introduce abortion benefits soon—here's what to know

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