9 Clues That Reproductive Policy Is Economic Policy

Anybody who says that talking about reproductive rights is a distraction from talking about economics is not running the numbers.

A study of 9000 women showed that access to free contraception radically dropped the rate of unintended pregnancies, two thirds of which according to the Guttmacher Institute are paid for on the public dime.  Unintended pregnancies cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated 11 billion a year in obstetric costs and neonatal care.  But that’s just the beginning.

Around the world, the relationship between reproductive health and economic prosperity is a given. Lack of contraceptive access dilutes family resources to the point that parents on the edge can’t feed their kids. It contributes to school drop outs, illiteracy, and an excess of workers competing for unskilled labor jobs. In some of the poorest communities, one in eight mothers dies from pregnancy—often unwanted—leaving motherless children scrabbling to survive rather than climbing a ladder of opportunity. Women are acutely aware of the costs and risks of unwanted pregnancies, and some go to extraordinary lengths to safeguard themselves and their families—scraping together bus fare, traveling for hours with an infant or toddler and waiting in line for a contraceptive injection, only to repeat the process a few months later. Melinda Gates talked with a poor mother in Kenya who explained her pursuit of contraception this way: “I want to bring every good thing to one child before I have another.”

American parents want the same thing. We want to stack the odds in favor of our children.  We want to be healthy—psychologically and physically—so that we can meet their needs and our own. We want to be financially secure so that we can provide the necessities, deal with emergencies, and still have enough left over for the little extras that make life fun. We want to raise our kids in thriving communities with good streets and schools and parks and clean air and water, in a country that is fiscally solid with sustainable budgets and sustainable resources.  This is the definition of economic prosperity. And all of it, to a greater or lesser degree, is predicated on American men and women being able to decide when to have children and how many to have.

Here are nine reminders of why reproductive rights and health care are critical to American prosperity.

1. Kids cost money. Duh. Fiscally responsible families know that six or seven thousand diapers are just the beginning of what it takes to raise a healthy kid. According to statistics from the U.S.D.A., a middle income family pays between $12,000 and $15,000 per year in child rearing costs. Overall, parents can expect to shell out almost $300,000 between the time a child is born and the time he or she hits college – and that’s assuming a functioning public school system. On top of that college costs today range from about $60,000 at an in-state university to $240,000 at a selective private college. Working families want to time their childbearing so they can save for and manage these costs.

2.      Unintended pregnancies push women out of the workforce, which means family income goes down as costs go up. Enrolling one kid in a daycare center can cost as much as 18 percent of the median income for a married couple. No matter how much a man and woman may value the work they do outside of the home, it doesn’t take very many kids before it’s simply not worth it for both parents to stay on the job. Obviously, many parents stay home with their kids by choice and love doing so. But with half of the pregnancies in this country unintended, we have to assume that many others simply are making the best of hard trade-offs. For families at the margins, these tradeoffs can push them out of the middle class.

3.      Unpredictable childbearing keeps women from attaining their potential as business leaders and innovators. Traditional gender roles are scripted around women not having control over their fertility. In the 1960’s, when modern contraception finally became legal in the U.S., there were no female CEO’s of Fortune 500 Companies. Last year saw a record of eighteen. You might point out that this number is shockingly far from parity, but the fact is that without access to effective, reliable contraception, we’d likely still be at zero. In general, women in positions of business leadership have risen slowly. Even so, by 2007 there were 70 million woman-owned businesses in the U.S.

4.      Even apart from childbearing, untreated reproductive health problems contribute to absenteeism, lost wages, and a glass ceiling for otherwise capable female workers. American women miss over a hundred million hours of work annually because of reproductive symptoms including endometriosis, heavy bleeding, menstrual nausea and migraines, and menstrual cramps that can be as intense as early labor. In Italy, cyclical absenteeism due to such symptoms is calculated to account for fourteen percent of the wage differential between men and women. Symptoms related to problem periods are now treatable, largely through the use of continuous or long acting contraceptives (LARCs), but in the absence of widespread healthcare access and education, reproductive health problems continue to be a drain on the economy.

5. Lack of effective contraception keeps women and girls out of school. Because family wage jobs in the trades and military tend to be male dominated, schooling is particularly central to women’s economic opportunity. Contraception is one key to female education. At the time contraception became legal, men outnumbered women in college 65 to 35. Today, women continue to lag in the highly paid STEM sector (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but are a majority overall. Among high school girls, unintended pregnancy can be an overwhelming barrier to economic advancement. At today’s level of sex education and contraceptive access, eighty percent of teen pregnancies are unintended. Only forty percent of teen moms ever finish high school, and less than two percent have a college degree by age thirty. Because teens are particularly bad at using older contraceptive technologies like the Pill or barrier methods, they are particularly impacted by policies that don’t provide state-of-the-art LARC (long acting reversible contraception).

6.    Early unintended pregnancy contributes to multi-generational poverty.  Children born to teen parents—recall that 80 percent of those pregnancies are unintended—come into the world primed to end up economically challenged. Two thirds grow up in poverty. They do less well than average in school and on standardized tests and are more likely to drop out. Girls are more likely than average to become teen mothers themselves. Boys born to teen parents have almost three times the average risk of ending up in prison. Of course, the most significant cost here is the cost in human suffering. But the economic cost is also real, both for the individuals involved and for their communities.

7.  Unwanted pregnancy increases domestic violence and associated costs. The relationship between domestic violence and unwanted pregnancy is a two way street. In one study of 3,000 abused women, twenty five percent said that their partners sabotaged or forbid contraception. Coerced pregnancy is a shockingly common control tactic that may be aimed at keeping a woman in a violent relationship. On the other hand, unwanted pregnancy increases the risk of physical aggression. One in six victims of domestic violence says that the abuse first occurred during pregnancy. Once again, the primary cost can be measured only in human suffering. But the economic burdens also are real—women are kept out of the economy, unable to attain financial independence, or unable to function at their best, while expensive crisis intervention and social services tax community resources.

8. Unintended pregnancy unbalances state budgets. In Washington State, almost half of live births are paid for out of public funds at a cost of over $600 million annually. Some of these are chosen pregnancies; many are simply a result of difficulties poor women face in obtaining effective contraception. According to the Guttmacher Institute, every public dollar spent on contraception saves three dollars that would otherwise be spent on Medicaid payments for pregnancy-related and newborn care. But we would be a cruel society if the public outlays stopped at the end of the newborn phase, which means that the savings in the long run are even greater. The State of California saved an estimated 2.2 billion dollars over a five year period by increasing birth control access for residents who fell below 200% of the federal poverty level.

9. Unintended pregnancy unbalances our national budget. Nationally, it is estimated that teen pregnancy alone costs the American taxpayers nine billion dollars each year. In addition, early childbearing is correlated with low earnings far beyond the teen years. One study estimated that the “earnings deficit” incurred by teen mothers cost $925 million in tax revenues in 2004 alone. Add that to the earnings deficit incurred by overburdened older mothers.  Budget balance is affected by both outlays and inputs. Lower tax revenues are a cost that directly results from women or couples not having access to effective contraceptives that let them decide how many children they want and when they feel ready to bring those children into the world.

Not long ago Faith in Public Life launched a campaign to remind American voters and our elected representatives that the budget is a moral document.  Whether we ask rich people and corporations to pay their fair share and how we invest our tax dollars directly affects the wellbeing of real men, women and children. Some conservatives seem to have forgotten this. They also seem to have forgotten the converse: that human rights and public services lay the foundation for economic prosperity, both for individuals and for the country as a whole.

Patriarchal conservatives who want to restrict access to contraception, abortion and other reproductive health care are putting ideology ahead of compassion and equality. But they are also putting ideology ahead of America’s economic wellbeing—and they should be forced to admit it. Every anti-abortion, anti-contraception politician should have to stand in front of the cameras and say: “I actually don’t care what the War on Women does to the economy. I’m so determined to keep females in the kitchen that I’m willing to have our country take an economic hit.” That, really, is the bottom line.

One Woman’s War on Teen Pregnancy and Poverty in Memphis
Twenty Times Better than the Pill: A 4 part series
1. New Contraceptives for Cascadia – The lesson of St. Louis
2. The Pill is 1965 Technology – Next Gen IUD’s and Implants
3. Exorcising the Dalkon Shield – Time to Get Over a Bad Contraceptive Romance
4. A Contraceptive Revolution – Lowering the Remaining Barriers
The Real Truth About Contraception and Weight Gain
Dramatic Drop In Teen Pregnancy Really a Technology Tipping Point
A Brief History of Your Period and Why You Don’t Have to Have It

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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15 Responses to 9 Clues That Reproductive Policy Is Economic Policy

  1. Munroe Scott says:

    Statistics can be very persuasive but even more so when backed by sheer logic, as you do so well. I am always puzzled that those individuals and faith institutions who so adamantly oppose abortion also oppose birth control. Your economic arguments serve well to highlight the absurdity of an already illogical position.


  2. kathylenhardt says:

    The study in St. Louis doesn’t mention what the abortion rate in St. Louis itself was before the study. They only compare their results with the national averages, which could be very different. I’d really like all of the facts, please, not just the ones that seem to prove a point, before I form an opinion. (I’m not against contraception, BTW. I used it and believe that everyone should. I’m a little annoyed that my colonoscopy now costs $100 more than it did before ACA was passed. My insurance company said that our costs would be going up due to ACA. They could be lying, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m suddenly paying more for my well care in my old age when I paid for my contraception myself as a “youngster.” …just feeling a bit used, y’know?)


    • Actually, that is my bad, Kathylen. I saw the St. Louis comparison and then couldn’t find it again when I was writing this article. I need to track it down and revise. Tangentially, I definitely feel the frustration of extra costs hitting your own pocket –though that shouldn’t be from contraception. Plans that offer contraception over time end up costing everyone less as I understand it.

      Here it is: From 2008 to 2010, annual abortion rates among study participants ranged from 4.4 to 7.5 per 1,000 women. This is considerably less than the rates in St. Louis city and county, which ranged from 13.4 to 17 per 1,000 women, for the same years.


  3. mriana says:

    Same here. I never could figure out why people who oppose abortion also oppose birth control, but then again, there is no accounting for how people interpret the Bile either.


  4. okieprogressive says:

    Reblogged this on Free Speech and Information Rally.


  5. irascibleexaminator says:

    Common sense tells me to move on with out commenting on this topic…but hell, What do I know of common sense if I had any of that I’d be a woman ;-) or so the dogma goes.
    First let me compliment you on not mentioning three most abused pigeon hole labels in associated with this topic . I speak of Misogyny, Feminism and Patriarchal.

    At this point I acknowledge that the numbers you quote are more than likely correct and yes they are disturbing in terms of a of a statistical generality.

    There is also no doubt what so ever, that access to effective contraception (male and female, yes it’s a male responsibility too) are essential and should be both government subsidised as a matter of survival for the whole world. Likewise equity, as in fair, not all the same (equality) because heaven forbid, it might be confused with other abused and redefined pigeon holes like socialism and communism. Notwithstanding such deliberate word abuses by those with axes to grind the principals are IMO fundamental to our survival as a species. So much so any opposition to them is an absurdity beyond reason.
    And while I’m on about what is irrefutable in any moderately intellectually coherent society, one must include the notion of universal access to opportunity.

    Where I differ from most people is the methodology to achieve the above. I simply reject special pleading based on those with the shrillest voices screaming “me first” as both ineffectual and divisive. By that I am referring to the utter pointlessness of finger poking as means of stopping leaks in the dykes of “human ‘rights'” and the ignoring of the meta logic in alienating over half the people in the world for the actions of a few.
    In a previous comment I raised the flawed (biased) logic of ranking cultures other than ours ‘as needing our correcting.’ (sic) Ask your selves are all cultures other than Western (Christian) societies better off from our hegemony (read more suited to their environments)? And exploited by us? Have less crime? Have more equity?… Really ? In whose opinion? Try telling that to the San, Sumi, native Americans and the list goes on and on. In fact most want to have the choice of what they want to accept from the west, not have it forced on them.

    There is no doubt that some men are resistant against women ‘intruding into their domain’ ( threatening that which they are familiar) and that isn’t good from our perspective. But let’s keep it in perspective that isn’t a trait that is uniquely male…stop by a fundie church some day and observe. Oh yes pressure to conform to the norm is a factor in ‘primitive’ cultures too.
    Even in this Western culture there are a goodly portion of women who are content with the modern view of the biological female role as their primary one. NB I did say I believe they should have the option without prejudice.

    Look at it this way in Australia recently a VERY ATTRACTIVE woman who WORKED IN THE MEDIA (back office) was snatched off the street presumably RAPED and killed.
    Note the holy trinity for media attention here . Every paper Australia wide had her picture front page every TV had it as lead story for the 5 days she was missing.
    Now on that same night there were 6 others killed through violence on the streets Aust wide.
    About a week earlier an 80 yo couple were beaten to death in their home their perpetrators are still unknown…that story got 7th on two local TV station in the 7 o clock news then forgotten
    The sisterhood called a marchs Aust to “retake?” the streets against violence against women on the streets… in her honour. BTW I as a male wouldn’t walk down THOSE streets at 2 am on a Saturday night either. They decried male involvement on the grounds that they didn’t couldn’t know what it means!? They trotted out the female deaths over 3 year period but in proportion the male count was 3.5 times higher.

    Surely those numbers show that if their should be a march then shouldn’t it be against VIOLENCE?
    One PhD author and advisor to a status of women group quoted a survey showing that males dominated conversations in co ed high school science classes as proof of systemic domination of males over women. My concern there was did anyone note what was the boy’s motives? From experience teen age boys have two primary concerns at that time:
    a. like most species jostling for dominance in the male hierarchy ( PS males do the same thing in male only classes) I’ve been educated in both environments. PS female only science classes tend to be quieter.
    b. again like most species they try to attract female attention. Ask any studious plain male who get the prettiest and or most girls …it’s the most gregarious (rowdiest), jocks, and the hunks who are generally amongst the most confident.
    Now when I read the seed author of this topic’s stats she quoted a high proportion of teen age pregnancies as accidents…unplanned. Tell me how many teenage males go out deliberately make a baby or to crash their vehicle. Very few I ‘d wager … I’d ask the surveyor how they isolated the other factors. Like the teen age sense of gratification now with no real thought of consequences . To me the most reasonable take away message is getting around the two primary problems.
    a. Availability of contraception to both … That is a political matter not a uniquely a gender one. That means overcoming one of America’s national neurosis …the 1% INDUCED irrational fear of two words ‘socialism and communism’.
    b. Working out an effective strategy to get around/over/ under/ or through their immediate gratification risk taking propensity. Keeping in mind the undeveloped ‘frontal cortex (?)(decision making part of the brain) which has been shown not to mature fully until around 24… coincidently the peak vehicle accident range is under 25/6.

    What amazes me is that with so much superior brain power in the activist grouping (male and female) that they still haven’t come up with a better strategy/methodology than painting a message that is open to extremist over simplification by the the less honourable females. Who have turned the message into one of women V men. Thus making conflict the focus not the goal.
    I don’t think the case is well served by alienating the less mentally agile and more insecure men and women who also vote.
    Ok ladies rip it up


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