Abortion and class inequality: Reproductive choice is only for the rich
Demonstrators attend a rally in support of abortion rights, Thursday, May 23, in Miami. | Lynne Sladky / AP

The wave of anti-abortion laws sweeping through the United States this spring raises anew the connections between reproductive choice and class. Class inequality makes reproductive choice a province of the privileged rather than a power shared by all people.

Five states have passed bans on abortions after six or eight weeks when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Alabama’s law, passed on May 17, is the most restrictive in the nation, as it makes performing an abortion at every stage a felony offense, with no exceptions for rape or incest. It is tempting to focus only on these deeply alarming legislative developments because they directly set the stage to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But denying access to an abortion is already being achieved in a less dramatic fashion. Restrictions that progressively and decisively chip away at access and fairness are also very effective. Social and financial resources matter here. The political battle against anti-abortion legislation is also a class struggle.

The economic implications of these anti-abortion legislative efforts are getting attention but none dare call it class. In a recent NPR segment, Jeanne Meyers related the circumstances under which she had an abortion nearly forty years ago. Not being married and unemployed, she recalled: “I didn’t know what I would do with a baby… I was horrified. I had no job. I would have been in no financial position to care for a kid.” Unable to get an abortion in Janesville, her home, she had to travel to a clinic in Madison after having saved up money to pay for the trip north to Wisconsin’s capital.

NPR reporter Scott Horsley cited a 2018 study of  “Socioeconomic Outcomes of Women Who Receive and Women Who Are Denied Wanted Abortions in the United States,” based on interviews with 813 women over five years. It shows that women who were not able to get abortions and later gave birth had higher odds of poverty six months later than women who received abortions. They were also less likely to have full-time work and more likely get some form of public assistance. Both effects “remained significant for 4 years.” The study concluded that “Laws that restrict access to abortion may result in worsened economic outcomes for women,” an outcome the women expected, since the most common reasons women give for wanting to end their pregnancies are financial, “in particular, not having enough money to raise a child or support another child.”

The class aspect of family size is old news to most families in the United States, but it is rarely discussed. The economics of class can dictate the terms and conditions for family size, especially for those without access to money, resources, and social and political capital. The accepted division between the public and the private, the hallmark of our liberal order, makes it difficult to see these matters clearly.

If the public consists of government, business, and civic institutions, and the private has primarily to do with the family and the home, then it seems readily apparent how decisions about pregnancy or family size can be viewed as private choices.

Opposition to restrictions around this choice focuses on perceived rights. In fact, Roe v. Wade was based on an interpretation of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment that defined privacy as including a women’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The power of Republican men and their allies in the Christian Right to terminate that right, as this spring’s series of new state laws make clear, underscores the perception that the fight for reproductive choice is solely a gender issue when such choices are also bound by class considerations. The personal is, indeed, very political.

Family life, including the material conditions of social reproduction in the home, are inextricably bound to the political-economic order. This means that the seemingly very private decision to have an abortion or not cannot be separated from elite determinations of capital and resource allocation that favor the few at the expense of the many. Thus, the link between the denial of abortion rights and adverse socioeconomic outcomes is not unwanted but actually expected, if not deliberate.

Gender and class are not the only dimensions to the anti-abortion legislation, which will likely spread to other states. Elizabeth Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, notes that bills are in process in eleven more states. As Michelle Alexander argued last week in her New York Times essay “My Rapist Apologized,” we must also consider race. During her first semester at Stanford Law School, she became pregnant as a result of rape. When this occurred, her father was unemployed and her mother was working at a minimum wage job. While Alexander’s family wanted to help, they were in no position to do so.

She wondered if she should drop out of law school to raise this child. Feeling very alone at the time, Alexander now recognizes that her situation would have been familiar for many black women, who “have the highest rates of abortion in the country, undoubtedly due to the severe wealth gap between black and white families—a gap that holds even among the poor. The white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 in wealth…while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zero.”

Most reports on the latest anti-abortion bills focus on the Supreme Court, but future court decisions might not be about Roe v. Wade at all. Instead, they could focus on and support state regulations that effectively rule out the practical possibilities of obtaining an abortion. That means that efforts to roll back these laws will have to occur on the state level.

chart from the Guttmacher Institute shows how even existing mandated waiting and counseling periods in many states makes it impossible for working-class and poor women to obtain abortions. The multiple steps needed to “prove” eligibility for terminating a pregnancy are prohibitively expensive because of the loss of income and the added expenses of travel.

If abortion providers are already diminished due to other state regulations or, as in the case of Alabama, women must travel to another state, what realistic chance for healthcare is possible? As Alexander argues, even so-called “rape exception” clauses would most likely entail lengthy and expensive legal wrangling and fees in which the exception is useless.

The juggernaut that the anti-abortion forces bring to this struggle is enormous. Women bear the brunt at the losing end of this fight, but to protect access to abortion, we must address the gritty reality of class and the disparate effects felt by women of color. If solidarity means anything in this debate, it will have to include an activism that is determined and shaped by class and race as well as gender.

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Ken Estey
Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an assistant professor in studies in religion. The author of "A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work," his research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity. He is also co-chair of the Class, Religion, and Theology Group at the American Academy of Religion.