A peer-reviewed study recently accepted for publication offers what its authors say is the “first causal evidence” indicating that abortion denials due to gestational limits – such as the 15-week limit approved in Mississippi and recently debated before the Supreme Court – often lead to significant financial distress for women who are unable to obtain an abortion because of such restrictions.
The study, slated to be published in the American Economic Journal, examines two groups of women: Those in a “Near Limit” group sought an abortion just prior to a gestational limit – whether aligned with state law or an earlier cutoff imposed by an individual clinic – and were able to terminate their pregnancy. Those in a second “Turnaway” group were denied an abortion for exceeding the limit by up to three weeks. Among the 217 of 292 women in the Turnaway group for whom a birth outcome was known, the majority went on to give birth after the abortion denial, while others either obtained an abortion elsewhere or suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth.
The researchers used survey data collected over a five-year period from women recruited at 30 different abortion clinics in 21 states and linked it with credit reports from 2006 through 2016. The credit data reflected several years prior to the year of the birth (or when it would have occurred) and an extended period after for participants in both the Turnaway and Near Limit groups.
The researchers examined measures of financial distress and well-being over time within the two groups, including credit scores, existing lines and availability of credit, bills delinquent by 30 days or more, debt subject to third-party collections, and events of public record such as a bankruptcy, eviction, tax lien or other court judgment related to unpaid debt.
The study showed that Turnaway women denied an abortion for exceeding a gestational limit experienced an almost 80% surge in past-due debt after the denial, and a roughly equivalent increase in negative public records on their credit report. This elevated “financial distress” persisted in the five years following the abortion turnaway, researchers said. By contrast, the Near Limit women who were able to obtain an abortion did not experience a notable increase in markers of financial distress, on average, and remained fairly stable relative to their financial state before the abortion.
“It’s only at the time when the Turnaway group is denied an abortion that we start seeing this big spike in financial problems just in that group, essentially, and it remains more or less flat in the Near Limit group,” says Sarah Miller, a study co-author and assistant professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. She notes that the Turnaway group “never gets back to where they were” in terms of financial distress over the ensuing five years following an abortion denial.
The Turnaway group was also less likely to have a prime credit score in the three years post-birth, according to the study, and experiencing an abortion denial reduced the likelihood a woman would have no debt in collections. Researchers found some reduction in measures related to access to credit for the Turnaway group compared with the Near Limit group in the years immediately post-birth, but did not find a comparative difference across measures of borrowing, such as credit card balance or number of auto loans.
The researchers’ ability to examine historical financial data for study participants that predated their abortion or abortion denial sets this study apart from others using the same survey data, as researchers were able to rule out preexisting differences between the two groups that may have contributed to their different outcomes. Since the Turnaway and Near Limit groups were demographically and financially quite similar in the years prior to their pregnancy, the researchers were able to zero in on the abortion event itself and conclude with a high level of certainty that the negative financial effects observed in the Turnaway group were caused by their inability to obtain an abortion.
“Our study indicates that laws that impose gestational limits for abortion result in worse ﬁnancial and economic outcomes for the women who are denied an abortion,” the researchers write. “For the women who carry their pregnancies to term (the vast majority in our sample), there are likely to be important implications for the well-being of their oﬀspring.”
The study references prior research showing that financial distress is correlated with other socioeconomic stressors such as eviction and major health events, as well as lack of access to basic goods and services, income supports and health insurance coverage.
Miller notes that the negative financial effects experienced by the Turnaway group were not themselves surprising, as women tend to cite financial insecurity as a primary reason for obtaining an abortion. Instead, she says, the large size and persistence of the impact most surprised the researchers.
The research team conducted various additional “exploratory” analyses to contextualize study results, and looked at whether women in the Turnaway group who had a child after an abortion denial received increased family, monetary or government support.
Contrary to “what optimists might hope would happen,” Miller says, Turnaway group members were no more likely than the Near Limit group to be living with a male partner post-birth, somewhat less likely to reside with adult family or roommates, and significantly more likely to be living alone with their child or children.
Women in the Turnaway group experienced a modest increase in child support of about $20 per month, the study indicates, and no increase in post-birth income despite adding a household member. The study did not find statistically significant changes in receipt of food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Family benefits, but did find increased receipt of Women, Infants and Children program benefits relative to the Near Limit group, especially in the year of the birth.
These findings, as Miller points out, contradict the idea that an abortion denial and subsequent birth necessarily “results in forming a family” in which both parents participate in raising or supporting the child, or that the woman is able to access a significant amount of alternative family, community or financial support.
“We didn’t find a lot of evidence that that was going on in our sample,” Miller says.