The Economic Geography of America's Abortion Wars
"We don't want a country where abortion is simply outlawed. We want a country where it isn't even considered," said Representative Paul Ryan in a speech a few weeks ago.
It's not as far off as you think. In just the past several weeks, the Kansas legislature passed a sweeping new bill that says life begins at conception. This follows on the heels of North Dakota's ban on abortions after a fetal heartbeat is found (typically about week six, before many women know they are pregnant), Arkansas's prohibition of abortions after week 12, and Alabama's tightened regulations on abortion providers. On the other side of the issue, a federal court in New York ordered that the so-called "morning-after pill" be made available to women and girls of all ages, instead of requiring a prescription for girls under a certain age. (This is currently being appealed by the Justice Department.)
The word "choice" presumes that women actually have options. While the right to have an abortion is still protected by Roe v. Wade, in practical terms, it has become a privilege that is reserved for the residents of relatively affluent states. In more than half of all states, 90 percent of counties lack any abortion providers. Women in almost nine in 10 (87 percent) of U.S. counties (a third of U.S. women of reproductive age) lack access to any abortion services at all, according to a 2011 study in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
The upshot is that more and more women who are determined to obtain an abortion must travel great distances and out-of-state to do so. A 2005 study in the Annual Review of Public Health found that "nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of women seeking an abortion travel 50 miles or more to find a capable physician."
Not coincidentally, two of the states imposing the harshest new restrictions are the very states that women travel to. Roughly half of the abortions in Kansas were performed on non-residents and approximately one third in North Dakota, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new laws in these states will have consequences for women far beyond their own borders, cutting off access to abortion services not just for their residents but for women in surrounding states.
When it comes to abortion, women in America occupy two completely different worlds depending on where they live. Women in less affluent, more working class red states in the South and Midwest occupy a world where access to abortion services is for all intents and purposes unavailable to them. Women in more affluent, more highly educated blue states in the Northeast and on the West Coast continue to have the "right to choose."
Abortion's opponents see the world entirely through a moral lens; they contend, for example, that abortion and declining moral standards go together. Restricting access to abortions, they insist, can only strengthen marriage and families.
That's largely a myth. While it is true that abortion rates are lower in states in which more people claim to be very religious, marital stability is certainly not. States with the highest levels of abortion also have the most stable marriages, according to my previous analysis here on Cities. States with higher divorce rates have lower rates of abortion, while abortions are more frequent in states where the divorce rate is lower. A similar pattern holds for people who engage in multiple or so-called "serial marriage" (those who have been married three times or more). Abortions are more frequent in states where serial marriage is less common, while the abortion rate is lower in states where more people have been married multiple times. Though correlation does not imply causation, it would seem that stronger, longer-lasting marriages and abortions go together, at least when comparing states.
Couching abortion in moral terms deflects attention from the bigger issue at play. It's not just morality that affects women's right to choice, but economic circumstance. It's not just more affluent women who have more choice, but women who live in more affluent, more educated states. Women in poorer, less advantaged red states find themselves facing an environment that looks a whole lot like that before Roe v. Wade.
Morality is subjective by definition, but a women's right to choose increasingly reflects the stark reality of economic circumstance, class and politics that divide America today.
Top image: Anti-abortion marchers argue with pro-abortion rights activists during the annual March for Life rally in Washington on January 25. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)