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9th December 2022

The US midterms: Women’s rights versus the economy

The midterms have proved it’s time we view economics and abortion rights as one in the same
The US midterms: Women’s rights versus the economy
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Trigger warning: discussions of sexual assault and rape

America’s midterm elections were much more of a success for the Democrats than political polls and pundits suggested. The Democrats maintained control of the Senate and only lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans by a narrow margin.

To me, this victory can be attributed to women and young people being motivated to vote for abortion rights. This comes after a summer of discontent over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling which guarantees a constitutional right to an abortion. The Democrats’ pro-choice campaign offered voters an alternative to the anti-abortion sentiments voiced by many Republicans. Thus, the Democrats’ performance in the elections was more of a vote against the Republicans and their anti-abortion sentiments rather than a vote of confidence in Joe Biden.

However, in the build-up to the midterm elections, the Democrats were criticised by both the left and centre of the party for focusing too much on abortion rights, amidst concerns that there was not enough emphasis on the economy. Indeed, polls ahead of the elections showed that inflation was the top issue for voters, followed by abortion rights. This distinction between abortion rights and inflation as two isolated issues would suggest that the severity of anti-abortion laws has not been fully comprehended, as it is not just a moral issue but also an economic one.

Firstly, the removal of abortion rights raises huge ethical concerns. For nearly half a century after the Roe v. Wade decision, American women were endowed with a basic level of respect through the constitutional right to an abortion. Now, 14 states have abortion bans which effectively takes the United States further away from a utopian ‘land of the free’ and much closer to the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale. In states like Alabama and Texas, abortions are banned with no exceptions for rape or incest. The increasingly authoritarian control that many US states now have over women’s bodies is a terrifying human rights issue. 

But it is also an economic issue. We shouldn’t ignore that access to contraception and abortions enabled American women to claim financial, professional, and educational equality. Abortion access has increased women’s participation in the workforce as they are more likely to finish higher education and enter better-paying occupations without unplanned pregnancies. Furthermore, planned pregnancies allow parents to be financially stable enough to provide their children with better education and quality of life. 

Anti-abortion laws also force women to travel out of state for abortions. Potentially millions of women will have to spend thousands of dollars in order to travel to other states for abortions. Women from Texas have to drive 248 miles to the nearest abortion clinic — if they have a car. Not only does this put a financial, mental, and physical strain on these women, but it also strains the healthcare systems in states where abortions are still legal.

It is estimated that California’s annual patient load could rise from 46,000 to 1.4 million women seeking abortions due to an influx of women from outside of the state. Clearly, abortion rights and the economy are inextricably linked due to the financial impact it has on women and their families as well as on healthcare workers. We need to do more to highlight this.

There is also an overlooked racialised aspect to these bans. The increased abortion rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s correlated to a decrease in birth rates, particularly among teen, unwed, and non-white women. This has increased non-white women’s rates of high school graduation and college attendance. Abortions enabled women from marginalised communities as well as women in general to claim bodily and economic autonomy. Now, due to bans on abortions, these women’s lives are at risk.

In the United States, Black women have the highest death rates as a result of pregnancy and childbirth because of unequal medical care. Some abortion bans, such as in Texas, have gone as far as preventing life-saving abortions. Abortion bans will therefore deepen the already existing gender, class, and racial inequalities in the United States and push more people into poverty.

Abortion must not be treated as an isolated issue when it is so intrinsically linked to the economy. The Democrats’ victory showed that women and young people are vocalising their opposition to anti-abortion legislation. Notably, there were landmark wins in Michigan, California, and Vermont where voters blocked anti-abortion laws in referendums. 

However, abortion being up for debate today as a political issue is a terrifying thought when women supposedly gained autonomy over their bodies nearly 50 years ago. With Donald Trump announcing his bid for the 2024 presidential elections, women’s rights are still in a precarious position despite the success of the midterms. In order to reclaim these rights, we need to see abortion laws as an economic equaliser across racial, class, and gender boundaries. 

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