The recent announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has ignited widespread speculation about the future of Roe v. Wade. Some analysts believe that a new appointment to the Supreme Court would mean a conservative justice, particularly one who is against abortion rights, will threaten the status of the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted women an essential degree of reproductive freedom on on Jan. 22, 1973, by supporting the right to terminate a pregnancy under specific conditions.
As a sociologist who studies women, work and families, I’ve closely examined how the landmark ruling affected women’s educational and occupational opportunities over the past 45 years.
Then & Now
Let’s go back to 1970, three years before the Roe decision.
In that year, the average age at first marriage for women in the U.S. was just under 21. Twenty-five percent of women high school graduates aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college and about 8 percent of adult women had completed four years of college.
Childbearing was still closely tied to marriage. Those who conceived before marriage were likely to marry before the birth occurred. It wasn’t yet common for married women with young children under age 6 to be employed; about 37 percent were in the labor force. Then, as now, finding satisfactory child care was a challenge for employed mothers.
By 1980, the average age at marriage had increased to 22. Thirty percent of American women aged 18 to 24 who had graduated from high school were enrolled in college, and 13.6 percent had completed a four-year college degree. Forty-five percent of married mothers with young children were in the labor force.
While these changes may not be directly attributable to Roe v. Wade, they occurred shortly after its passage – and they’ve continued unabated since then.
Today, roughly two generations after Roe v. Wade, women are postponing marriage, marrying for the first time at about age 27 on average. Seventeen percent over age 25 have never been married. Some estimates suggest that 25 percent of today’s young adults may never marry.
Moreover, the majority of college students are now women, and participation in the paid labor force has become an expected part of many women’s lives.
Control Over Choices
If the Roe v. Wade decision were overturned – reducing or completely eradicating women’s control over their reproductive lives – would the average age at marriage, the educational attainment level and the labor force participation of women decrease again?
These questions are also difficult to answer. But we can see the effect that teen pregnancy, for example, has on a woman’s education. Thirty percent of all teenage girls who drop out of school cite pregnancy and parenthood as key reasons. Only 40 percent of teen mothers finish high school. Fewer than 2 percent finish college by age 30.
Educational achievement, in turn, affects the lifetime income of teen mothers. Two-thirds of families started by …read more