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How an abortion ban could change the lives of women in Florida

The end of a half-century of legal abortion would have a profound impact on women in Florida.

It would affect their health, wealth, education and families, experts say. Women would be particularly vulnerable in a state that has no free birth control, no mandated maternity leave and no subsidized daycare.

Years of economic and educational gains would be erased for tens of thousands of women every year. Fewer would graduate high school and college. There would be a domino effect on careers, opportunities and earnings, said Ellen Daley, associate dean of research at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. Life would be even bleaker for women in low-income households who are more likely to get abortions.

Such scenarios are being contemplated as a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion shows it may overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that found the Constitution protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. If Roe is overturned, 13 states have so-called trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion — and Republican-controlled Florida could outlaw it as well.

”(The fetus) is a human life and we have to protect it,” said the Rev. Len Plazewski, pastor at Christ the King Church in Tampa. “You don’t turn around and say: ‘Well, you’re too expensive.’”

While anti-abortion advocates focus on the impacts on the unborn, many studies have delved into the impacts on women.

The Turnaway Study, conducted by the University of California, San Francisco recruited 1,000 women at abortion clinics in 21 states and compared the lives of those who had the procedure to those who were turned away because they were too far pregnant. (It did not include transgender men and nonbinary people who can also get pregnant.)

When it ended in 2016, the 5-year study found that women denied abortions were more likely to experience economic hardships such as bankruptcy, debt, evictions and low credit scores compared to those who had abortions. Those forced to give birth were more likely to stay with a violent or abusive partner — and were more likely to end up raising the child alone.

“We’ve had 50 years of looking at what does safe legal abortion give women as opposed to when it was illegal,” Daley said. “So many things are going to be damaging from this Supreme Court decision. It’s a really frightening thought.”

Health risks of pregnancy, birth

The end of legal abortions will not end abortions.A 2017 report from the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization, found that countries with the strictest laws didn’t see a substantial reduction in abortions. Instead, more women turned to unsafe abortions to end their pregnancies, and more women died as a result.

If Roe is overturned, Daley fears more women will die in the US as they try to end pregnancies through self-injury, toxic substances or without proper medical care.

Unsafe abortions also contribute to maternal mortality, which is blamed for the deaths of 22,800 to 31,000 women globally a year, according to the institute’s report. The US ranks last among industrialized countries in maternal mortality, according to analysis from the Commonwealth Fund.

American maternal mortality was getting worse before the pandemic started, and as of 2020 had risen to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Black women were more than twice as likely to die in childbirth compared to white and Hispanic women.

Complications from an abortion are rare, according to a study published last year. Between 1998-2005, the risk of death associated with childbirth was approximately 14 times higher than having an abortion. The authors concluded legally-induced abortion is “markedly safer than childbirth.”

The costs of birth, parenthood

The financial consequences of pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood can be devastating for those without the resources to support themselves or their child, said Alison Yager, director of the Florida Health Project.

Giving birth in Florida without complications costs an average of $7,700 to $12,000 with insurance. That makes Florida the eighth most expensive state to give birth in, according to data collected by Fair Health Consumer.

Hospital bills double when delivery results in severe complications for the mother’s health, including heart failure, respiratory distress and infection, according to Premier HealthCare Analytics.

A middle-income family pays nearly $16,000 a year to raise a child on average, according to an estimate from the Department of Agriculture. A large share of that goes toward childcare, which in Florida costs an average of $9,000 a year. That’s half of what a single parent making minimum wage earns in a year.

State data shows women factor whether they can afford to raise a child when they decide whether to continue a pregnancy. There were nearly 80,000 abortions performed in Florida last year, and over 95% were for economic, social or elective reasons, according to data collected by the state Agency for Health Care Administration.

Plazewski, the Tampa pastor, objects to such calculations.

There are developed counties that have tighter abortion laws than the US, he said, “and there is no loss of standard of living there. But that’s a minor point because, it’s important to say, the human life of a child is not expendable.”

Plazewski said society should do more to help women bear the expense and hardship of giving birth and caring for children.

“It’s one thing for people to say they’re opposed to the taking of human life,” he said, but they also need to “support those charities and support using taxpayer dollars to support mothers’ pre- and post-natal care.”

Education and earnings

More than a third of abortions in Florida last year were people in their teens and early twenties, according to CDC data. Those are the ages when education and career choices matter most, said University of North Florida economist Madeline Zavodny.

Last year Zavodny was one of 154 economists and researchers who signed an amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson — the US Supreme Court case that could overturn Roe — explaining the consequences for women. They cite research that shows when women have access to legal abortions, they have higher high school and college graduation rates, leading to better economic opportunities.

The impact of having children on future careers and salaries are even steeper for economically disadvantaged women, Zavodny said. Those most likely to miss out on the opportunities that come with education are also those who have the least access to abortion.

Research suggests banning abortion will hit Black mothers hardest. Maternal mortality dropped 28-40% among Black women because of legalized abortion, according to a 2021 paper. Their high school and college graduation rates increased by more compared to other groups, according to a 2017 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy. Black women also went on to earn more.

Government should do more to financially support women if Roe is overturned, said John Stemberger, an influential activist who is president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian organization.

“We’re looking at the state to provide more (post-natal) support,” he said, “and it’s something that the private sector and religious institutions will have to step up on too.”

But the US job market isn’t designed to support working mothers, Zavodny said. Entry-level jobs rarely pay enough to support a family, she said, and come with unpredictable hours and earnings.

“Think about how that makes childcare so incredibly difficult,” she said, “you don’t know how much you’re going to earn this week, how many hours you’re going to get. It’s really hard.”

Parental planning

Who gets the most abortions in Florida? Parents.

More than 60% of abortions in the state in 2019 were performed on those who already have children, according to CDC data. That included more than 4,000 people who had four or more children.

The decision to have an abortion isn’t just about the wellbeing of the mother, Yager said.

“They’re recognizing that adding another child to their household is going to strain resources beyond what they think is good for their family,” she said.

Parents are among those who come from as far as Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana to get abortions at Tampa Women’s Health Clinic, said director Liberty Feucht.

They can’t afford to have more children because they’re already struggling financially, Feucht said. The sharp rise in rents and real estate values has left more families struggling to make it, she said.

“Every person wants to be able to provide the best care for the person they bring into this world,” Feucht said. “They see it as unfeasible to care for another child on top of the struggles they’re already having.”

‘It’s the choice that I made’

Sarrah Vesselov, 44, is married, has two boys and owns a small business.

That life would not be possible, she said, without access to abortion.

In the winter of 1997, she dropped out of college because she couldn’t afford tuition. A part-time job at a Little Caesars barely paid her bills. Then she got pregnant at 19.

“I felt in no way ready for this situation,” she said. “I didn’t even feel ready to take care of myself.”

She was apprehensive about going to an abortion clinic. But the doctor was calm, kind and non-judgmental.

“It was not an easy experience,” she said. “I remember feeling relief afterwards. Just thankfulness and relief.”

She re-enrolled in college, finished her degree and married. Five years later, when she and her husband decided to have a child, she still felt overwhelmed balancing motherhood and work.

“But I had a partner, someone there who I felt I could trust,” Vesselov said. “I had a job, he had a job, we had health care.”

She recalls the euphoria of the first time she held her son.

”Then it hit me,” she said.

Her education, her marriage, her career, her family, none of it would have been possible if she had been forced to give birth when she wasn’t ready.

Now she owns a board game cafe in Zephyrhills. Saturdays are her favorite, when her youngest helps run the store. Looking back, Vesselov said she has no regrets:

“It’s the choice that I made, and I’m so thankful that I had that choice because it gave me what I have now.”