What the U.S. Economy Owes to Contraception

By Bryce Covert |

This isn’t about “moral” objections. Women’s access to contraception has been a huge driver of America’s economic dominance.

It’s no secret that women’s reproductive rights have become a big news item lately, from this to this to this. Contraception in particular is now a campaign issue. George Stephanopoulos was heckled for bringing it up in the New Hampshire Republican debate (to which Romney said we should leave it alone), yet it’s since become clear that Rick Santorum, if not the others, has some very… interesting views. In his mind, contraception is “not okay,” and he warns of “the dangers of contraception in this country.” Meanwhile, a vote is likely this week on an amendment that would allow all employers — religiously affiliated or otherwise — to object to insurance coverage of health care services that they feel are out of line with their moral beliefs, targeted at undoing a requirement that contraception be covered for free.

Santorum may see birth control as somehow inflicting harm on the United States, but that papers over the benefits we’ve all experienced from women’s access to contraception. Far from being a simple issue of morality, I’ve previously argued that it’s an economic issue, particularly for low-income women. Yet there’s another big reason this is an economic argument. Contraception has had an enormous positive impact on our economy. By freeing women up from unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, women are able to complete education and stay in the workforce — plus they usually have less work waiting for them at home.

The pill was first cleared for contraceptive purposes in the 1960s. Just five years later, 6.5 million women were taking it. By 1973, that number hit 10 million. Unsurprisingly, birth rates fell significantly during the same time period. The birth rate in the 1950s and early 1960s was 118 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44. By 1980, that rate had fallen by almost 75 percent, to 68 births per 1,000 women. With a safe, legal, and accessible drug that helped women plan and space out their pregnancies, births dropped dramatically.

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Research consistently demonstrates a link between decreased fertility thanks to contraception and increased female employment. And right on cue, women, freed up from unwanted child bearing and child rearing, consequently flooded the workforce after the pill became widely accessible. In 1950, 18 million women were in the workforce. By the 1980s, the pill’s impact had had such an effect that 60 percent of women of reproductive age were employed. By 2000, the ranks of women in the workforce had more than tripled since the ’50s, rising to 66 million. Overall, from 1970 to 2009 women went from holding 37 percent of all jobs to almost half of them.

This change has had a significant impact on women’s lives and families, the fallout of which is still reverberating throughout the culture wars. But the impact on our economy is easy to quantify. The private sector has long recognized this fact: consulting giant McKinsey explains that without the huge increase in women’s workforce participation since the 1970s, “our economy would be 25% smaller today — an amount equal to the combined GDP of Illinois, California and New York.” As The Economist reports, “In developed economies, women produce just under 40% of official GDP,” but if unpaid child rearing work is taken into account, it estimates they account for about half. In fact, its rough estimates suggest that women’s entry into the labor market has added more to our GDP growth over recent decades than creating new jobs for men, capital investment, or increased productivity (the other typical drivers).

Contraception also means that women have control over their own reproductive capacities, paving the way for more equal footing with men. And the economic benefits of women’s equality have recently been a big topic of conversation from the United Nations to Goldman Sachs.

Conservatives of Santorum and Roy Blunt’s ilk may be trying to paint this over as purely about religion and moral objections. But this is a much larger economic issue. Even if women’s sexual autonomy makes you queasy, their economic autonomy has impacted everyone. Santorum included. The birth control pill irreversibly revolutionized the American economy.

Bryce Covert is the former Editor of Next New Deal and current Economics Editor of ThinkProgress.