Lack of access to abortion is a public health crisis (opinion)

Having survived COVID and now monkeypox, colleges across the country are facing a new public health crisis – lack of access to abortion. And it threatens to change the face of higher education for years to come. Women ages 20 to 24 have the highest unintended pregnancy rate of any age group. As a result, colleges that educate more than nine million women at any given time will be deeply affected by the recent Supreme Court decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the federal right to legal abortion.

For mothers attending college, the barriers to educational success are formidable; only 33 percent of college students with children in the United States graduate within six years of matriculation. Similarly, teenage pregnancy, which is more common in black and Latino communities, negatively affects a young woman’s likelihood of graduating from high school and attending college. One study of urban African American teenagers found that teenage mothers remained economically and educationally disadvantaged compared to their childless peers well into their 40s. A substantial body of literature shows that women who become pregnant in their teenage years complete fewer years of education than their peers, which can have lifelong impacts on their economic and health outcomes.

Also, restricting abortions can be deadly for mothers. Time and time again, researchers have demonstrated a link between restrictive abortion laws and high maternal mortality. In the US, studies show that restricted access to abortion has led to a significant increase in maternal mortality. The pattern is evident globally. In Mexico, for example, states that made abortion more accessible reported a 20 percent reduction in abortion-related morbidity in just a few years. In Romania, where, after the adoption of new restrictive laws in 1966, maternal mortality rose from about From 85 deaths per 100,000 live births to 150 deaths, maternal mortality fell by 50 percent in a year after abortion laws were liberalized after 1989.

The researchers also found an inverse relationship between public funding of abortion and infant mortality rates. Parental involvement laws, which require that a parent be notified when a minor seeks an abortion, have been shown to have a statistically significant correlation with higher infant mortality rates at the state level.

The story does not end with increased mortality. The consequences for the individual of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term are not only physical but also economic. One study found that those who were denied an abortion compared to those who were able to obtain an abortion were almost four times more likely to live below the federal poverty level six months after the event, and this difference remained statistically significant four years later.

Fifty years of data are indisputable. Overturning Roe vs. Wade will lead to an increase in maternal and child mortality. Additionally, the burden will be borne disproportionately by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, black and brown mothers, and adolescents. As of this writing, abortion is officially outlawed in 13 states, most without exceptions for cases of rape or incest—though the evidence on whether these policies actually reduce abortion rates remains inconclusive. These 13 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) host nearly 3.4 million students enrolled in institutions of higher education, about two million of who are women.

Over the past 50 years, women have made tremendous progress in higher education, and the Dobbs decision puts that progress in jeopardy. In 1970, only 42 percent of students were women; today, almost 60 percent of students are women. Half of the university-educated workforce is now female, and women’s earnings parity with men for full-time work has improved. In 1979, women earned 62 percent of what men did; by 2016, women’s earnings were 82 percent of men’s earnings for full-time work. With the changes brought about by the Dobbs decision, we can expect to see a decline in female college graduation rates, a reversal of recent trends in pay equity with men, and, most tragically, increased maternal and child mortality.

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