In 1970, five states — Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington — stepped to the front of that era’s abortion debate and legalized the elective version of the procedure.
The Supreme Court extended those rights across the country just three years later with the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which found the Constitution's guarantee of privacy protects the right to an abortion.
Today, economists are keenly focused on that three-year window for hints as to what might happen if the Supreme Court overturns a national right to an abortion, as a leaked draft opinion suggested it will do.
Currently, 22 states have laws on the books that would restrict the legal status of abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe as it is expected to do when it issues a ruling by the end of June, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a source for research and policy analysis on abortion in the U.S. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have specific laws on the books protecting abortion rights.
The years 1970-1972 “afforded social scientists a quite nice, what we call, natural experiment” to find out what would happen when abortion is legal in certain states and illegal in others, noted Middlebury College economist Caitlin Myers in a recent interview.
While many focus on the moral arguments around abortion, Myers and some of her colleagues have long studied the economic implications. Myers says the evidence is overwhelming that having at least some access to abortion from 1970 to 1972 began to help women’s economic lives — a trend that increased in 1973 and beyond.
Myers spearheaded an amicus brief filed in the current Supreme Court case arguing that the legalization of abortion had dramatic effects on the ages when women became mothers, the level of education they attained, and their participation in the labor force.
Some economists say 1970-1972 is especially illuminating because, according to Myers, it’s “a very...