Now that Ireland has legalized abortion, the focus is on whether abortion is an issue of women’s rights or the fetus’s right to life. Few have focused on the impact of abortion on the poor. Shouldn’t access to free or affordable family planning help reduce the poverty rate? After all, out-of-wedlock childbirth is the single factor that correlates most strongly with poverty, more strongly than does race, education or geography.
While social conservatives in the Republican party have been pushing this issue for years, it is actually Democrats who did the research here. A very interesting paper was written by Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof with his wife Janet Yellin on the effects of birth control and abortion on the U.S. population in the first 25 years after the landmark case Roe v. Wade.
While Akerlof is the more famous academic of the two, Yellin may be the most famous politically, as she served as an economic adviser to President Barack Obama and was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve during most of his presidency. Both Akerlof and Yellin are Democrats and professors at U.C. Berkeley, not exactly a hotbed of social conservatism.
Nevertheless, they found in their 1996 paper that the effect of abortion clinics (which distribute free or discounted birth control) was more out-of-wedlock children, not fewer. In fact, when abortion clinics went into a poor neighborhood, that neighborhood’s out-of-wedlock birth rate exploded.
Given the strong correlation between out-of-wedlock births and poverty, we can assume that abortion clinics had an important role in increasing poverty in already-poor neighborhoods. Social conservatives such as former senator Rick Santorum have pointed out this dichotomy, which has caused progressives such as those at Salon.com to accuse conservatives of “lies.”
Akerlof and Yellin, safely inside the Berkeley bubble, do not consider the possibility that family planning could do more harm than good. Instead, the professors suggest better education in how to properly use birth control. Also, the professors argue that trying to unring the bell by rolling back access to birth control and abortion wouldn’t change behavior, as social norms have changed so radically from the 1960s.
Still, the economic debate is an important factor in the overall abortion debate. While progressives’ failure to once again accept research that contradicts their beliefs will likely keep this debate outside of academia, the rest of us can look to Ireland to see how legal abortion affects the poverty rate.