After COVID, Another Public Health Crisis

Lack of access to abortion stands to change the face of higher education for years to come, Elizabeth H. Bradley and Dara Anhouse write.

November 3, 2022
About a dozen abortion rights activists, holding various signs, gather around a banner that reads "Public Health Emergency" in front of the White House gates.
Abortion rights activists outside the White House in August called on the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the federal right to abortion.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America/Getty Images)

Having weathered COVID and now monkeypox, colleges across the country are facing a new public health crisis—lack of access to abortion. And this one threatens to change the face of higher education for years to come. Women aged 20 to 24 years have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy among any age group. As a result, colleges, which educate more than nine million women at any given time, will be deeply affected by the recent Supreme Court decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, revoking the federal right to legal abortion.

For mothers attending college, the barriers to educational success are immense; only 33 percent of students with children in the United States complete their college degree within six years of matriculation. Similarly, teenage pregnancy, which is more common in Black and Latinx communities, negatively affects a young woman’s likelihood of finishing high school and attending college. One study of urban African American teens found that teen mothers remained at an economic and educational disadvantage compared to their childless peers into their 40s. A substantial literature shows that women who experience pregnancy in their teens complete fewer years of education than their peers, which could have a lifelong impact on their economic and health outcomes.

Moreover, restricting abortions can be lethal for mothers. Over and over again researchers have demonstrated a link between restrictive abortion legislation and high maternal mortality. In the U.S., studies have shown that restricted access to abortion has resulted in significant increases in maternal mortality rates. The pattern is apparent globally. For instance, in Mexico, states that made abortions more accessible reported a 20 percent reduction in abortion-related morbidity within only a few years. In Romania, where after passing new restrictive laws in 1966 the maternal mortality rate rose from around 85 deaths per 100,000 live births to 150 deaths, maternal mortality rates fell 50 percent in one year after abortion laws were liberalized post-1989.

Researchers have also found an inverse relationship between public funding for abortion and infant mortality rates. Parental involvement laws, which require a parent to be alerted when a minor seeks an abortion, have been shown to have a statistically significant correlation with higher state-level infant mortality rates.

The story is does not end with increased mortality. The consequences for an individual of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term are not only physical but also economic. One study found that individuals who were denied an abortion compared with individuals who were able to receive an abortion were almost four times more likely to live below the federal poverty level six months after the event, and that difference remained statistically significant four years later.

Fifty years of data are undeniable. The repeal of Roe vs. Wade is going to result in increases in maternal and infant mortality rates. Furthermore, the burden will be borne disproportionately by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Black and brown mothers, and adolescents. As of writing, abortion has been officially banned in 13 states, most without exceptions for cases of rape or incest—even as the evidence for whether these policies actually reduce abortion rates remains inconclusive. These 13 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin) host nearly 3.4 million students enrolled in higher education institutions, about two million of whom are women.

In the last 50 years, women have made tremendous strides in higher education, and the Dobbs decision puts this progress in jeopardy. In 1970, only 42 percent undergraduate students were women; today nearly 60 percent of undergraduates are women. Half of the college-educated workforce are now women, and women’s earnings parity with men for full-time work has improved. In 1979, women earned 62 percent of what men did; by 2016, women’s earnings were 82 percent of men’s earnings for full-time work. With the changes effected by the Dobbs decision, we may expect to see reductions in college graduation rates by women, reversal of recent trends in pay parity with men, and, most tragically, increased maternal and infant mortality.

Share Article

Elizabeth H. Bradley is president of Vassar College. A global health expert, she holds a doctorate from Yale University in health policy and health economics. Dara Anhouse is an undergraduate at Brandeis University studying history and health: science, society, policy.

Back to Top