By Constance Shehan
The recent announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has ignited widespread speculation about the future of Roe v. Wade. Some analysts believe that a new appointment to the Supreme Court would mean a conservative justice, particularly one who is against abortion rights, will threaten the status of the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted women an essential degree of reproductive freedom on on Jan. 22, 1973, by supporting the right to terminate a pregnancy under specific conditions.
As a sociologist who studies women, work and families, I’ve closely examined how the landmark ruling affected women’s educational and occupational opportunities over the past 45 years.
Then and now
Let’s go back to 1970, three years before the Roe decision.
In that year, the average age at first marriage for women in the U.S. was just under 21. Twenty-five percent of women high school graduates aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college and about 8 percent of adult women had completed four years of college.
Childbearing was still closely tied to marriage. Those who conceived before marriage were likely to marry before the birth occurred. It wasn’t yet common for married women with young children under age 6 to be employed; about 37 percent were in the labor force. Then, as now, finding satisfactory child care was a challenge for employed mothers.
By 1980, the average age at marriage had increased to 22. Thirty percent of American women aged 18 to 24 who had graduated from high school were enrolled in college, and 13.6 percent had completed a four-year college degree. Forty-five percent of married mothers with young children were in the labor force.
While these changes may not be directly attributable to Roe v. Wade, they occurred shortly after its passage – and they’ve continued unabated since then.
Today, roughly two generations after Roe v. Wade, women are postponing marriage, marrying for the first time at about age 27 on average. Seventeen percent over age 25 have never been married. Some estimates suggest that 25 percent of today’s young adults may never marry.
Moreover, the majority of college students are now women, and participation in the paid labor force has become an expected part of many women’s lives.
Control over choices
If the Roe v. Wade decision were overturned – reducing or completely eradicating women’s control over their reproductive lives – would the average age at marriage, the educational attainment level and the labor force participation of women decrease again?
These questions are also difficult to answer. But we can see the effect that teen pregnancy, for example, has on a woman’s education. Thirty percent of all teenage girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy and parenthood as key reasons. Only 40 percent of teen mothers finish high school. Fewer than 2 percent finish college by age 30.
Educational achievement, in turn, affects the lifetime income of teen mothers. Two-thirds of families started by teens are poor, and nearly 1 in 4 will depend on welfare within three years of a child’s birth. Many children will not escape this cycle of poverty. Only about two-thirds of children born to teen mothers earn a high school diploma, compared to 81 percent of their peers with older parents.
The future depends in large part on efforts at the state and federal level to protect or restrict access to contraception and abortion. Ongoing opposition to the legalization of abortion has succeeded in incrementally restricting women’s access to it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that studies reproductive policies, between 2011 and mid-2016, state legislatures enacted 334 restrictions on abortion rights, roughly 30 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade.
In 2017, Kentucky enacted a new law banning abortion at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization. Arkansas banned the use of a safe method of abortion, referred to as dilation and evacuation, which is often used in second-trimester procedures.
Of course, medical abortion isn’t the only way in which women can exert control over reproduction.
Even before 1973, American women had access to a wide range of contraceptives, including the birth control pill, which came on the market in 1960. Five years later, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples could not be denied access to contraceptives. In 1972, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the court extended this right to unmarried persons.
In 2017, a record number of states acted to advance reproductive health rights in response to actions by the federal government. In 2017, 645 proactive bills were introduced in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Eighty-six of those were enacted and an additional 121 passed at least one committee in a state legislature.
How would the lives of American women in the last decades of the 20th century and early 21st century have unfolded if the court had made a different decision in Roe v. Wade? Would women be forced into compulsory pregnancies and denied the opportunity to make life plans that prioritized educational and employment pursuits? Would motherhood and marriage be the primary or exclusive roles of women in typical childbearing ages?
With the availability of a greater range of contraception and abortion drugs other than medical procedures available today, along with a strong demand for women’s labor in the U.S. economy, it seems unlikely that women’s status will ever go back to where it was before 1973. But Americans shouldn’t forget the role that Roe v. Wade played in advancing the lives of women.
Constance Shehan is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Florida.
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Women have changed so much the left can not explain what one is.
Absolutely. . . it’s about time we stopped classifying people by their skin color, cultural heritage, nation of birth, and even their biology. Our laws should be written to indicate human beings, regardless of anything else. Therefore, these particular reproductive rights should apply to any “human being” who is capable of carrying and giving birth to a human child. Simple!
Who is capable in your opinion?
Bill C says
OK Romeo, you’re the expert.
Come On. . . “repression” of human rights. . . it’s the Fascist (errrr Republican) way! She said sarcastically = Let’s turn back to the 1940’s where men ruled and wives stayed home bare foot and pregnant. . . MAGA!
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post
Alito’s draft recognizes the rights of an hour-old zygote, but not of a 12-year-old impregnated by a rapist. More precisely: Alito would authorize any state legislature to criminalize the abortion of an hour-old zygote by a 12-year-old rape victim. This is not hyperbole; at least 10 states have already passed antiabortion laws with no exception for rape or incest.
Will there be any limit to the steps a state can take to enforce proper care and delivery of each fetus? Alito suggests this is a question for the Americans of 1868 to answer. Today’s women should be thankful for the 19th Amendment, which engraved their right to vote into the Constitution. Should this draft become law, they are going to need it to defend themselves.
A few things are going on here. First, if Roe is overturned, then the Supreme Court is no longer supreme. Just political puppets. Kavanaugh is not emotionally mature enough to be a SC Justice, throwing a baby fit at his interview. Barrett is clearly a political plant. Judges are put in place to consider all input, and make a judgement based on facts supplied, not personal opinion, or for that matter, not to repay those who put them in place. Americans are losing trust in our constitutional system.
Next, no one likes abortion. I, myself, could not do it. For someone else, it’s none of my business. Republicans have stated they abhor government overreach. They did not want government in Americans’ bedrooms. Now, they are doing their best to regulate women’s wombs. They want to override parents and doctors decisions on children’s hormones. They have no plans for these children. That’s not their issue, their issue is to keep a job.
Is this really about children? No. There are no Republican or Democratic plans for unwanted children. This is clearly to control women. This article substantiates that very well. Republicans want to save us from ourselves like Tucker Carlson wants to save white people from everyone else. Like Trump cares about the working guy. Ratings. Money in the pocket. Control. These are the real issues.
In the draft opinion, Alito references adoption as a reason for abortion to be overturned, using the phrase “domestic supply of infants” to indicate that less abortion would help increase the supply of babies that adoptive mothers are seeking, thus monetizing these babies. We already have seen the Catholic Church in Ireland sell white babies, Mother Teresa’s order of nuns do likewise and former Cabinet member BetsyDeVos make a fortune trafficking infants. This is the Republicans’ reason to oppose abortion. Their mock morality is a sham—this is pure capitalism.