Last night was surprising, shall we say, for this college-educated white woman. Call me a naive fool, but even as a lifelong resident of Mountain Time, I thought today we’d be looking at an historic “first” of a different kind. And yet, here we are. There’s nothing to do but move forward and try to get onto the same page as a society. In keeping with that theme, I’m writing about a topic I’ve considered writing on in the past, only to back away from it as too controversial. Yet this is the issue I thought about first while Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Michigan were turning from purple to pink. On this morning after, let’s think about Roe.
Roe, as we’re regularly told by the political left, is important for the health and safety of the mother and child. Less-discussed is another extremely important and perhaps further-reaching role: its critical place in the self-actualization of women. It is that somewhat bastardized side of Roe, which makes us all just a little squeamish, that I’ll talk about here.
Like many women, I spent the decade after college in training*, first as a statistician, and then as a disease ecologist. At 33, I’m currently one month into my first “real” job. I love my work, but that work hinges on my ability to occasionally work long, strange hours, and will likely one day require me to drop everything and move. Extreme geographic and temporal flexibility, after all, is essentially a professional expectation of early career practitioners, be they in academia, law, business, medicine, research, or any number of other professional domains.
Taking on a decade of education at serfian wages and under uncontrollable scheduling is a gamble with a relatively stable payout, assuming one can accrue enough work-years and appropriate advancement after finishing. Graduate and medical students (and, to a lesser extent, law students and MBAs) essentially make an up-front payment, on the bet that they will have sufficient time to reap the rewards. For female students, however, pregnancy risk alters the scope of that bet: reproduction, career advancement1,2, and financial stability3 are inexorably (and negatively) linked, due to the cost of delivering and rearing a child, plus –importantly – the lost financial opportunity associated with being a mom (expenses and educational commitments, in fact, are commonly cited as determining factors by women who actually have abortions4,5). As a consequence, many early-career women are effectively betting that we can make it through graduate school, plus put in enough post-grad time to justify the cost, prior to getting pregnant. And unless the Republican platform was a ship of lies (…), we’re unlikely to decouple pregnancy and women’s long-term financial stability any time soon.
Men, as far as I can tell, are largely blind to the pregnancy-finance risk conundrum facing their female friends and colleagues. I suspect it’s pretty easy for men (even well-intentioned, intelligent men) to remain blissfully naive6 to a very present worry for many young women: if a man isn’t aware of his partner’s cycle, he really has no means of counting minutes, waiting, and worrying anyway. Controlling reproduction (or rather, not-reproduction) remains very much women’s work, and it is work that women largely take on alone.
Women’s pregnancy-finance risk conundrum is compounded by evidence that women are more risk-averse than men to begin with, and are much more prone toward adopting strategies to hedge. It seems to me that risk hedging in the pregnancy-finance conundrum takes three obvious forms. One is to not have sex (which is a nice idea, but somewhat impractical given the increasing age at marriage for professional women, paired with increasing time until most couples WANT their first child); the second is to religiously (ha ha) use birth control (which most women do, and which is actually more of a pain then I think most men realize, but see 7); the third is to accumulate financial resources as quickly as possible so that the costs of an unexpected child could be borne (with the trade-off that jobs that pay well initially often do not allow for the skill-development necessary for upward mobility).
Let’s put aside Option One as unrealistic. Academia and modern society both implicitly and explicitly frown on Option Three, with (I suspect) the consequence that many, many women opt for Option Two. And Option Two, of course, isn’t fool-proof.
Enter Roe. Roe is the silver bullet, an essentially fail-proof method for dodging the pregnancy-finance spiral (until you’re ready for it). In its absence, I suspect more women would feel compelled to choose early nest-egg building over a long-term investment in education and career development. While it’s probably not true that no women want abortions, I suspect the vast majority of women regard them with the same fear and sadness that drives such emotional responses from the political right. That is probably the precise reason why abortions are increasingly rare. But having the option is imperative, since it gives women the freedom to invest in our futures along comparable axes to those experienced by men. As such, at this time, I believe Roe remains an essential tenet for the advancement and self-actualization of American women. I hope our leaders, new and old, can muster the empathy to see Roe in this light.
1. Mason MA & Goulden M (2004). Marriage and baby blues: redefining gender equity in the Academy. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 596: 86-103.
2. Wolfinger NH, Mason MA & Goulden M (2008). Problems in the pipeline: Gender, marriage, and fertility in the Ivory Tower. The Journal of Higher Education 79(4): 388-405.
3. Leung ML, Groes F & Santaeulalia-Llopis R (2016). The relationship between age at first bith and mother’s lifetime earnings: Evidence from Danish data. PLoS One 11(1): e0146989.
4. Finer LB, Frohwirth LF, Dauphinee LA, Singh S & Moore AM (2005). Reasons US women have abortions: Quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37(3): 110-118.
5. Broen AN, Moum T, Bodtker AS & Ekeberg O (2005). Reasons for induced abortion and their relation to women’s emotional distress: a prospective, two-year follow-up study. General Hospital Psychiatry 27: 36-43.
6. Moore AM, Singh S & Bankole A (2011). Do women and men consider abortion as an alternative to contraception in the United States? An exploratory study. Global Public Health 6(S1): S25-S37.
7. Ricketts S, Klingler G & Schwalberg R (2014). Game change in Colorado: Widespread use of long-acting reversible contraceptives and rapid decline in births among young, low-income women. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 46(3): 125-132.
* In the spirit of full disclosure, women’s studies and reproduction are not my areas of research. If I’ve misinterpreted the primary literature, or my arguments would be better served (or nullified) by other sources, please let me know.