Overturning Roe is a Poverty Issue

October 14, 2022 by Hope Sheils

On the June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court released its landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. Justice Alito’s majority opinion overturned Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion.[1] The opinion holds that “Roe and Casey must be overruled.” [2] This decision raises particular concerns for economic justice.

Abortion—and access to safe, affordable abortion—is an economic justice issue. Women living in poverty will be disproportionately harmed by this decision. Ending the constitutional right to abortion will further marginalize poor people who can become pregnant—an already marginalized group. This article outlines two crucial facts to consider: denying access to abortions increases poverty, while alleviating poverty can decrease the need for abortions.

Denying access to abortions increases poverty. The UCSF Turnaway Study found that women who were turned away from having an abortion and went on to give birth:

  • were more likely to live in poverty.[3] Seventy-two percent of the women who did not receive a wanted abortion lived in poverty after five years—much higher than the 55 percent living in poverty who did.
  • were more likely to not be able to cover basic living expenses (e.g. housing, food, and transportation);
  • were more likely to live in poverty for at least four years, compared to those who received an abortion;
  • were more in debt;
  • had lower credit scores; [4]
  • and had an eighty-one percent increase in reports of bankruptcy, eviction, and tax liens.[5]

Beyond these economic hardships, women who are denied a wanted abortion are more likely to experience physical violence from the man involved in the pregnancy than those who were able to attain one. [6] Women denied an abortion were also more likely to be raising children alone.[7]

Women of color are more likely to live in poverty and as such are particularly vulnerable to these restrictions.[8] It is worth noting that the legalization of abortion in the United States caused demonstrable economic benefits for women and girls of color—both increasing high school graduation rates and college admission rates for Black women in particular.[9] Black women also experienced a 28 to 40 percent decline in maternal mortality due to abortion legalization.[10] Denying this right may have the intentional opposite effect.

Denying access to abortion hurts children, as well. Data from the Turnaway Study shows that children born as a result of a denied abortion are more likely to live below the poverty line than children born from a subsequent pregnancy from a mother who received an abortion.[11] Children that women already have when they seek abortion show worse child development when they are denied an abortion.[12] As as a summary of the study puts it, “Women who receive a wanted abortion are more financially stable, set more ambitious goals, raise children under more stable conditions, and are more likely to have a wanted child later.”[13]

On the flip side, reducing poverty may reduce abortions. Women in poverty are more likely to seek or need abortion.

Some key statistics worth considering here:

  • Three-quarters of people who seek abortions have low incomes.[14]
  • More than half of people who seek abortions report a recent disruptive life event (e.g. the loss of a job)[15]
  • Many women seeking abortions lack access to affordable childcare or paid maternity leave.[16]

Around half of the people who get abortions live below the federal poverty level.[17] This is a trend that has increased with time. While abortion rates nationwide have decreased, abortions are increasingly concentrated among poor women. Half of the people who had an abortion in 2014 lived in poverty—this is a 100 percent increase from the twenty-five percent of people who had an abortion in 1994. [18] The abortion rate has declined forty percent since then.[19] This is particularly stunning given the fact that poorer women are disproportionately impacted by abortion restrictions—even though it is harder for poorer women to obtain an abortion, they still are far more likely to seek one.[20]

Studies further suggest that low-income women are more than five times as likely as affluent women to experience an unintended pregnancy. [21]  Rates of sexual activity are nearly identical across all income groups,[22] which suggests that reductions in poverty increase the use and understanding of effective contraception—reducing the need for abortion. In addition to being more likely to effectively use contraception, more affluent women are less likely to seek abortion if they nevertheless become pregnant, suggesting that higher incomes decrease the need for abortion.[23]

When the women who seek abortions are asked why they sought them, the overwhelming answers are overwhelmingly that they cannot afford a baby at that time, or that having a child would interfere with their work, education, or ability to care for dependents (seventy-three and seventy-four percent, respectively).[24]

Economic data make it clear that, if we want to help the poor, rolling back constitutional rights to privacy and abortion are cruel and counterproductive at best. We owe each other better.


[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 213 L. Ed. 2d 545, 142 S. Ct. 2228 (2022).

[2] Id. at 2242.

[3] Diana Greene Foster et al., Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States, 108 Am. J. of Public Health 407, 407 (2018).

[4] The Harms of Denying a Woman a Wanted Abortion: Findings from the Turnaway Study, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, (last visited May 3, 2022) https://www.ansirh.org/sites/default/files/publications/files/the_harms_of_denying_a_woman_a_wanted_abortion_4-16-2020.pdf; See also Sarah Miller et al., The Economic Consequences of Being Denied An Abortion, Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Rsch. (Jan. 2020, rev. Jan. 2022), Working Paper 26662.

[5] Chabeli Carrazana, How abortion restrictions like Texas’ push pregnant people into poverty, The 19th News (Sept. 7, 2021), https://19thnews.org/2021/09/abortion-economy-poverty-texas-law/.

[6] The Harms of Denying a Woman a Wanted Abortion: Findings from the Turnaway Study, supra note 4; citing Sarah CM Roberts et al., Risk of violence from the man involved in the pregnancy after receiving or being denied an abortion, 12 BMC Med. 144, (2014).

[7] Id.; citing Diana Greene Foster et al., Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Unwanted Abortions in the United States, 112 Am. J. of Pub. Health 1290 (2018).

[8] See Sophia Kerby, the State of Women of Color in the United States, Ctr. for Am. Progress (July 17, 2012) https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/; See also Anne Branigin and Samantha Chery, Women of color will be most impacted by the end of Roe, experts say, Wash. Post (June 24, 2022, 8:04 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/06/24/women-of-color-end-of-roe/.

[9] Manuella Libardi, Anti-abortion laws: a war against poor women, Equal Times (Oct. 22, 2021), https://www.equaltimes.org/anti-abortion-laws-a-war-against#.YnGA5fPMKDU.

[10] Theresa Ghilarducci, 59% of Women Seeking Abortions are Mothers Facing High Poverty Risk, Forbes (Dec. 24, 2021), https://www.forbes.com/sites/teresaghilarducci/2021/12/24/59-of-women-seeking-abortions-are-mothers-facing-high-poverty-risk/?sh=85fb783264f8.

[11] The Harms of Denying a Woman a Wanted Abortion: Findings from the Turnaway Study, supra note 4; citing Diana Greene Foster, PhD et al., Comparison of Health, Development, Maternal Bonding, and Poverty Among Children Born After Denial of Abortion vs After Pregnancies Subsequent to an Abortion, 172 JAMA Pediatr.1053 (2018).

[12] Id.; citing Diana Greene Foster, PhD et al., Effects of Carrying an Unwanted Pregnancy to Term on Women’s Existing Children, 205 J. of Pediatrics 183, (2019).

[13] The Harms of Denying a Woman a Wanted Abortion: Findings from the Turnaway Study, supra note 4.

[14] Socioeconomic outcomes of women who receive and women who are denied wanted abortions, ANSIRH (Aug. 2018), https://www.ansirh.org/sites/default/files/publications/files/turnaway_socioeconomic_outcomes_issue_brief_8-20-2018.pdf.

[15] Rachel K. Jones, Lori Frohwirth & Ann M. Moore, More than poverty: disruptive events among women having abortions in the USA, 39 J. of Fam. Plan. & Reproductive Health Care 36-43 (2013).

[16] Carrazana, supra note 5.

[17] Id.

[18] Sabrina Tavernise, Why Women Getting Abortions Now Are More Likely to Be Poor, N.Y. Times (Jun. 9, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/09/us/abortion-access-inequality.html.

[19] Id.

[20] Dan Keating, Tem Meko & Danielle Rindler, Abortion access is more difficult for women in poverty, Wash. Post (Jul. 10, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/2019/07/10/abortion-access-is-more-difficult-women-poverty/.

[21] Richard A. Reeves & Joanna Venator, Sex, contraception, or abortion? Explaining class gaps in unintended childbearing, Brookings Inst. (Feb. 26, 2015), https://www.brookings.edu/research/sex-contraception-or-abortion-explaining-class-gaps-in-unintended-childbearing/.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Lawrence B. Finer et al., Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives, 37 Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 110-118 (Sept. 2005), https://www.guttmacher.org/journals/psrh/2005/reasons-us-women-have-abortions-quantitative-and-qualitative-perspectives.