Hillary Clinton gave her first major economic policy address earlier this week and outlined her goals for lifting wages for the middle class, expanding social services, and addressing growing economic inequality. She said that an important ingredient to strong economic growth is women’s workforce participation, and promised to knock down many of the barriers that hold women—and our economy—back. But she failed to mention one issue that is critical to the economic wellbeing of women and their families: access to reproductive health care.
It was encouraging to hear Clinton acknowledge the important role that women play in the U.S. economy. After all, women’s entrance into the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s is credited with driving a fifth of GDP growth. But over the past 15 years, their participation in the labor market has declined from 60 to 57 percent, not a major decline but certainly a trend in the wrong direction. The U.S. now ranks 19th out of 24 advanced countries on this measure. America’s dismal status can be blamed in large part on the lack of generous and sensible work and family polices we see in other OECD countries. These include paid sick leave, paid family leave, and affordable child care. Another factor is the stubborn wage gap that disadvantages women—and particularly women of color—throughout their working lives and beyond. Clinton indicated that addressing these inequities is a primary focus of her economic agenda. Doing so would significantly improve the lives millions of women and their families.
But we must do all that and more. Without access to comprehensive, quality, and affordable health care, including the full spectrum of reproductive health care—maternal health care, family planning, and abortion care—women and their families will not be able to take full advantage of the economic opportunities available to them.
I’m not worried that Hillary isn’t going to be a strong supporter of reproductive rights. In her Roosevelt Island campaign launch, she called out Republicans who “shame and blame women, rather than respect our right to make our own reproductive health decisions.” Her campaign sharply criticized House Republicans for passing a 20-week abortion ban earlier this year, saying, “Politicians should not interfere with personal medical decisions, which should be left to a woman, her family and her faith, in consultation with her doctor or health care provider.” Historically, she has been an advocate for reproductive rights in both domestic and international policy.
But it would be powerful if she could also articulate reproductive health as a critical component of economic security, as we at the Roosevelt Institute did in our recent blueprint for reversing economic inequality. Voters understand reproductive health as an economic issue. New polling from Virginia shows that 64 percent of voters there believe that a woman’s financial stability is dependent on her ability to control whether and when she has children, and 68 percent believe laws that make it harder to access abortion can have a negative impact on woman’s financial security. Polling conducted in New York and Pennsylvania showed similar results.
This isn’t just a matter of opinion; the evidence illustrates that reproductive health access has economic benefits for families. Studies have shown links between family planning access and greater educational and professional opportunities for women, as well as increased earnings over women’s lifetimes. Women report that using birth control has allowed them to better take care of themselves and their families, to stay in school, to support themselves financially, and to get or keep a job and pursue a career. And when women don’t have access to reproductive health care, they are economically disadvantaged. Take the results of the recent Turnaway Study, which has shown that women who seek but are denied an abortion are three times as likely as those who access the procedure to end up below the federal poverty line two years later.
In light of these findings, a progressive economic agenda will be incomplete if it does not include access to comprehensive reproductive health care. Lack of access to those services has significant health and economic costs. Women of color, immigrant women, and poor women all experience higher rates of chronic disease, unintended pregnancy, and lower life expectancy than women with higher incomes. U.S. women of color are 3–4 times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes, and infants born to those women are 2.4 times more likely than those born to white women to die in their first year of life. In some regions of the United States, the maternal mortality rate among Black women is comparable to that in some Sub-Saharan African countries. These disparities impact women’s quality of life. They inhibit these women’s ability to care for themselves and their families, to play an active role in their communities, and to participate in the workforce and achieve economic security. There is no more important time than now to advocate for a broader progressive agenda. Attacks on reproductive health access are at an all-time high and access to basic health services is being rolled back at a rapid rate.
The right and ability to make decisions about our bodies is a fundamental building block of our social and economic wellbeing. We can’t expect people to separate the physical, social, and economic demands and stresses they experience. Are women supposed to worry about their need for an abortion without worrying about the job they might lose if they take a day off to get one? Do they stress over needing to put food on the table for their kids without also worrying about how they will pay for birth control, student loans, and rent? No. For the vast majority of people in this country, life is messy and complicated and overwhelming, and everyday families have no choice but to juggle each of these issues simultaneously.
Progressives know that. Now is the time for them to put forth an economic agenda that will address all aspects of our economic wellbeing—not just those that have historically been politically palatable.
Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter at @dreaflynn.