After the women were turned away from an abortion clinic, they saw their outstanding debts soar by 78%, or $1,750 a year, and they suffered 81% more negative events, such as bankruptcies, tax liens or evictions, which show in public records. Women who were allowed to have abortions fared better economically, according to the researchers.
The women studied were part of a data set of nearly 1,000 women, at 30 abortion clinics in 21 states, who had requested an abortion. This group included hundreds of people who were turned away from the clinic, almost all because they were only a few weeks too far into their first or second trimester, depending on local boundaries.
By combining the study of women refused at the clinic with data from credit reports, researchers were able to track women who both received and refused abortions, measuring how the results affected their credit reports. The analysis by University of Michigan economist Sarah Miller, University of California San Francisco demographer Diana Greene Foster, and New York University economist Laura Wherry will be published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.
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It is deceptively difficult to measure how abortions affect women economically using traditional data sources because, as Foster points out, women who seek abortions often start out at significant disadvantages. “Women who have abortions are disproportionately high income, women of color, and women without a college degree,” she said. In part, these economic disparities may also reflect lack of access to contraception and health care services.
Such disparities make comparison groups difficult to find, especially among communities that have long been harder to track. The Turnaway study was a lifeline for researchers.
The study was inspired by a 2006 conversation between Foster and a director of an abortion facility in San Francisco. The director said she wonders what happens to women seeking abortions who are turned down. Abortion clinics like hers generally have to deny services to women who have passed the gestational limit, or the point in their pregnancy after which the clinic or state prohibits an abortion, usually in the second trimester.
After this conversation, Foster decided to follow the women who were turned down due to the gestational limit and compare them to the women who had come in for an abortion just before the deadline and were allowed to proceed.
Foster worked with clinics to recruit women for the study between 2008 and 2010. Over the next decade, she would publish more than 50 articles and a book, “The Turnaway Study,” about the results. The wide variety of topics she examined included post-traumatic stress disorder and contraceptive use, but one thing eluded her: a thorough economic assessment of women’s financial well-being.
This is where Miller, the Michigan economist, comes in. She read one of Foster’s papers and realized that the Turnaway study was an ideal candidate for a technique she had developed. in previous works. She could ask a credit reporting agency to anonymously match study participants to 10 years of detailed credit information and get a full, unbiased picture of their financial health.
Miller and Foster have taken elaborate steps to protect the identities of participants. “Everyone had incomplete data, so no one would be able to connect all the pieces,” Foster said.
When it all fell into place, the trends were striking. It’s not like women who have abortions are economically successful, Miller said, but having abortions seems to avoid some of the most serious financial problems.
When both groups of women became pregnant, their financial situation deteriorated as labor became more difficult and expenses increased. But in the year following the women’s due dates, their fortunes diverged. Both groups continued to struggle financially over their pre-pregnancy situations. However, those who sought an abortion and did not get one became much more likely to miss bill payments or have other black marks on their credit reports. This pattern remained for the five years the researchers followed the women.
Of course, the mere observation that one event follows another does not necessarily imply that the first caused the second, which is why economists spend so much of their time developing strategies that prove causation. . In this case, using well-established statistical techniques to compare the trajectories of the two groups, Miller was able to infer that the refusal of an abortion led to these women’s financial hardship.
The analysis focuses on women who seek abortions and medium-term pregnancies. Most abortions occur very early in pregnancies and 91% take place before 13 weeks. Typically, women are turned away after this time, as a clinic’s or state’s limits on abortions come into effect. More than 20 states ban abortion at some point between 13 and 24 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York nonprofit organization. Many clinics set their own prior limits.
The forthcoming findings have already caught the attention of academics who focus on these questions.
Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College, said she was impressed with the rigor of Miller’s analysis. “This is an expensive and difficult study,” she said. “The number of women they’ve been able to track is already quite remarkable.”
Matching respondents to their credit reports solves common problems with surveys like these. For example, economic data is often self-reported and subject to personal bias, and people tend to drop out of school after a few years. The study design “goes a long way toward answering the question of what happens to women’s finances when they are turned away from abortion services,” Myers said.
Emily Guskin and Maggie Penman contributed to this report.