ATLANTA— In a new working paper, Georgia State researchers reviewed health records from the 1960s and 1970s and found that state-level legalization of abortion produced a 30 to 40 percent decline in non-white maternal mortality, with little impact on overall or white maternal mortality. The team shared their findings at the winter meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Maternal mortality declined a hundredfold over the 20th century, yet Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. The study highlights the impact of legal abortion in reducing non-white maternal mortality through declines in abortion-related deaths and indicates that early state-level legalizations were crucial and, in some cases, more impactful than the landmark Roe v. Wade decision itself.
“Our findings suggest that legal abortion was crucial for non-white women but not as critical for white women, said Lauren Hoehn-Velasco, assistant professor in the Department of Economics and co-author of the study.
The research team also included Michael Pesko, an associate professor in the Department of Economics who specializes in evaluating health policies, and Sherajum Monira Farin, a graduate student in the Department of Economics.
“The larger effects for racial and ethnic minorities could be due to economic disadvantages. These groups may have had less financial ability to travel to states or other countries allowing abortions,” said Pesko. “Alternatively, a number of states allowed abortions in cases where the mother’s health was at risk prior to Roe v. Wade, and non-white women may have had less regular access with the healthcare system to identify problematic pregnancies and receive consent for abortions from physicians.”
Farin noted that while many previous studies have established an association or correlation between initial abortion legislations and decline in mortality in the U.S., this is the first to examine the causal aspect.
“While maternal mortality is still higher than we would like, there was significant progress made in the 20th century, and there are important benefits to understanding which social and legal phenomena led to our current condition,” says Velasco. “In the case that Roe v. Wade were overturned, the U.S. would return to a legal landscape similar to 1972… and access to safe, legal abortion would depend on each individual’s resources to travel or advocate for themselves in the medical system.”
Hoehn-Velasco's research interests include health and public economics. She has several areas of focus, including the long-term effects of historical programs and the household-level effects of divorce laws, intimate partner violence and maternity care.