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Caitlin Myers, associate professor of economics.

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Caitlin Myers’s Research Explores Effects of Abortion Policy in the 1960s and 1970s

January 4, 2018

Associate Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers wondered what fueled the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Her curiosity led to an interest in abortion policy during those decades and the publication of her paper, “The Power of Abortion Policy: Reexamining the Effects of Young Women’s Access to Reproductive Control,” in the December issue of the Journal of Political Economics. In the following Q&A, Myers discusses her findings.

1. What is the main finding in your research on contraception and abortion policy?
I provide empirical evidence that the liberalization of abortion policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s substantially reduced the probability of teen motherhood, marriage, and shotgun marriage. 

2. What time period is your research focused on and why?
I focus on women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a period of epochal demographic and social change. The conventional wisdom is that the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 was a catalyst, but I find little evidence that policies governing young women’s access to the pill affected fertility and marriage during key years in the lives of these cohorts. In contrast, the legalization of abortion and policies granting minors confidential legal access had very large effects.

3. How did the data from this time period lay the groundwork for what we see now? 
I’d caution against generalizing the effects of reproductive policies 50 years ago to the effects of contemporary policies. A lot has changed, including social norms related to sex and contraception, the introduction of more effective forms of contraception, and the introduction of medical abortions. I am working on several papers at the moment that seek to estimate the effects of modern abortion policies.  The quick preview is that abortion policy still matters. But the introduction and expanded use of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) including IUDs and implants also has changed the face of contraception. 

4. Why, as your research states, did abortion, not birth control, decrease U.S. teen births?
The birth control pill probably fueled the sexual revolution. But the typical-use failure rate of the pill is much higher than most people realize: about 9 percent of women become pregnant in the first year of pill use. I perform some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations to show that pill access reduced the fraction of sexually active teenagers who became pregnant. But many teens appear to have replaced abstinence—a foolproof if perhaps unappealing means of preventing pregnancy—with pill-protected sex. As a result, overall pregnancy rates for all teens likely increased slightly.    

As for abortion, well, it is very different from abstinence in the eyes of most people, but both methods have one thing in common: they’re both highly effective ways to prevent unwanted motherhood. Within a few years of Roe, roughly one in four pregnancies was aborted. My results show that the liberalization of abortion policies reduced teen motherhood by about a third and theresulting “shotgun marriages” by about two-thirds. This is credible empirical evidence that abortion policy played a key role in many young women’s lives during the critical years in which they were completing their educations and making career decisions.

5. How do you respond to political science colleagues at other institutions who say that contraception use was/is far more common among women than abortion?
Well, of course it is, at least in the United States at present. And condoms and the pill, which are by far the most popular methods, are quite effective when used correctly. But life is messy, and typical-use failure rates for these methods are much higher than the rates on the packages. So long as men and women continue to make mistakes, there will be demand for abortion. At present, about 40 percent of all pregnancies are unintended, and about 50 percent of these are aborted. It should not surprise anyone that abortion access affects women’s lives.

6. Are you concerned that your research and methodology will be mischaracterized to push a political agenda?
My job as an empirical scientist is to try to remain as dispassionate as possible when testing hypotheses about the causal effects of these policies. (The scientific method, including replication, is key.) But of course I also pay attention to how the results are received by a broader audience. 

The interesting thing is, both sides in the abortion wars can use the results to support their agendas.  Pro-choice advocates can point to my work as evidence that increased abortion access reduces unwanted births and argue that it improves women’s lives. But if you view abortion as murder, then you can look at the same result as evidence that an increase in abortion carries a high moral price. 

I cannot resolve this ethical debate, but my work can help measure the causal effects of abortion policies.  This may inform legal consideration of the “undue burden” standard by which contemporary abortion policies are judged. Knowing whether abortion regulations affect abortion rates and fertility is one way to judge whether they place substantial obstacles in the paths of women seeking abortions.

7. How did you develop an interest in this topic?
It began with a very big question: What fueled the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s? As I began to ponder this, I became more and more interested in abortion policy writ large and began a series of additional projects on contemporary policies. This research appeals to me as an empirical economist, but it also lets me try on or wear my other hats, those of historian, legal scholar, political scientist, geographer, woman, mother and citizen.  It is interesting, intellectually stimulating work that piques my curiosity.