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The Controversial Economics of Abortion Law

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When economist Joshua Angrist was a young researcher in the mid-1990s, he saw a wrinkle in the history of abortion law that presented an opportunity for analysis. Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationally with its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, a number of states had already done so. Prof. Angrist, who is now on the faculty of MIT, saw an opportunity to examine the economic and social effects of abortion access by zeroing in on the states that had legalized abortion by 1970—Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington—and several others that had liberalized restrictions.

His paper “Schooling and Labor Market Consequences of the 1970 State Abortion Reforms,” published in the book “Research in Labor Economics” in 2000, drew mixed conclusions. In states that were early in liberalizing their laws, Black women experienced declines of more than 4% in teen-childbearing and out-of-wedlock birth, with associated increases in schooling and employment. White women didn’t see the same effects, however, and even for Black women the benefits didn’t look as powerful later, in states where abortion became legal with Roe.

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