The Economics of Abortion: How Women from Low-income Backgrounds have the Least Access to Abortion in the US

Harriet Whitehead is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, increased fears over access to contraception and abortion procedures swept across America. A recent report[1] carried out in the USA has shown these worries to be well founded, given that the Trump administration has begun to block abortion for the most vulnerable.[2] Nonetheless, America’s failure to offer adequate access to contraception and abortion procedures is not specific to the Trump administration. Federal law insures that women, specifically from low-income and BAME backgrounds, have poor access to abortion.

A key reason for this, is the longstanding expense of abortion in America. A report carried out by the National Network of Abortion Funds, found data which suggested that the Hyde Amendment of 1976 (which banned the use of federal funding to pay for abortions through Medicaid) has meant that many women cannot access contraception and abortion. When the Hyde Amendment came into being, the implications for women were clear; ‘the consequence [will be a ] devastating impact on the lives and health of poor women[3]’. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, declared a legal right to some, but not all, abortions.[4] Given this, abortions remain inaccessible for many women.

Following the Hyde Amendment, there was considerable backlash as top figures criticised the measures because they predicted that minority women would be most affected. In a ground breaking case, immediately following the law in 1976, a New York woman on Medicaid sued the government to stop the law, saying it would force her to carry her unwanted pregnancy to term. Nonetheless, even with significant resistance to the law, it continues to prohibit many from accessing abortion.

Notably, it is often financial factors that mean many women seek abortions.  It is because of this that women from low income backgrounds are five times more likely to undergo abortion procedures, than more wealthy women. Among women obtaining abortions, a 2004 survey found that the ‘most frequently cited reasons were that a new child would interfere with education or work or that women could not afford to have a baby at that time. Abortion rates rose during the recent recession, particularly among low-income women, as they and their partners lost jobs and income’[5].

Furthermore, Roe v Wade did not offer legal protection to all instances of abortion, but gave states the authority to ban abortions after a foetus is deemed viable. For this reason, the time periods in which abortions occur are also significant. Indeed, research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute has found that young women and low-income women  are disproportionally harmed by existing 20-week abortion bans[6]. The further along women are in their pregnancies, the more expensive the abortion procedures likely are. The average first-trimester abortion cost $470 in 2009[7] with second trimester costs averaging at about £1,500[8].

There is a cycle wherein many women are saving up money (until they can afford procedures) and are therefore having abortions in the second trimester. For this reason, proposed laws to stop abortions after 20 weeks, will likely stop women from obtaining abortion procedures all together.

Gretchen Ely, argues that data shows “an excellent representation of the intersection of all the ‘isms’…” and suggested ageism, classism and sexism where the other factors playing into this failing. Ely specifically pointed to the data found that suggests that black women are disproportionately affected by these measures.

To illustrate these failings, we might consider data as found by the Tiller Fund. The Tiller Fund was set up after Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, who was shot and killed in his church in Wichita in 2009. The fund prioritises women seeking second-trimester procedures. Such procedures only comprise of a small percentage of abortions nationwide, so the data is not a complete reflection of the picture. Nonetheless, the data points to startling inequality. Of those who sought access to the fund, nearly half were black, when only about 13 percent of the United States population and about 36 percent of women who seek abortions nationwide are.[9] These figures support other studies that have shown black women face more barriers to accessing health care in general, in the USA.

Therefore, it is through these means that the US government inhibit women’s access to abortion procedures. Federal law and excessive costs mean that women, specially from low income backgrounds will inevitably struggle to access abortion procedures.





[3] Justice Thurgood Marshall

[4] Ibid






Picture credit: Harriet Whitehead

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