The Poorest Women Are Being Priced Out Of Family Planning

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A new report from the influential think tank Brookings Institute provides clear evidence that low-income women are being priced out of their ability to control their fertility and plan their family size.

According to the paper, women living in poverty are five times more likely than more affluent women to experience an unplanned birth. The researchers note that “since unintended childbearing is associated with higher rates of poverty, less family stability, and worse outcomes for children, these gaps further entrench inequality.”

In order to figure out what policy solutions might help address this, the Brookings researchers wanted to understand where exactly the discrepancy comes from. So they examined the three factors that contribute to unintended births: The rate of sexual activity, the rate of contraceptive use, and the rate of pregnancy termination. They wondered if any clear differences would emerge across class lines.

They found that sexual activity among unmarried Americans is pretty constant, no matter how much money they have. “There is no ‘sex gap’ by income,” the researchers conclude. Considering the fact that premarital sex has been the norm in this country for the past several decades, that’s not incredibly surprising.

But some gaps did emerge when they looked at who exactly is accessing contraception and abortion. Low-income women are more likely to be having unprotected sex without the use of birth control, which puts them at greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy, but they’re much less likely to get an abortion. In fact, the abortion rates for affluent women are more than three times higher than the rates for the most impoverished sector of the country:

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Thanks to the hundreds of state-level abortion restrictions that have been imposed over the past several years, it has become more difficult and more expensive for women to have an abortion. Harsh laws ensure that Americans must navigate logistical hurdles that ultimately drive up the price tag, which presents a particular challenge for impoverished women.

For instance, 11 states have mandatory waiting period laws that require women to make two separate trips to an abortion clinic — which means they must take additional time off work, pay more for transportation, and potentially even stay overnight in a hotel if the clinic is hundreds of miles away from their home. Plus, abortion is routinely excluded from low-income women’s insurance plans, leaving them to shoulder the full cost of an unexpected health event on their own.

In fact, a recent ThinkProgress investigation calculated that an archetypal women living below the poverty line in Wisconsin, where many of these stringent anti-abortion laws are currently in effect, could pay up to $1,380 to end a pregnancy. That type of expense is insurmountable for many individuals who are already struggling to make ends meet. Previous research has confirmed that some low-income women are unable to get an abortion because it takes them too long to save up the money for it.

The Brookings researchers conclude that we need to make some changes to address the deeply entrenched economic inequality that prevents low-income women from controlling their fertility. They acknowledge that the U.S. needs more policies to increase low-income women’s access to long-acting reversible contraceptives, like IUDs, which have already been proven effective at reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy among that population. But they also note that removing the financial barriers to abortion is part of the equation, too.

“Access to affordable abortion also matters, and this is currently limited for many low-income women,” the report concludes. “There are of course strongly-held views on abortion, but it should be hard for anyone to accept such inequalities by income, especially when they are likely to reverberate across two or more generations. Abortion is a difficult choice, but it is not one that should influenced by financial status.”