What will happen if Americans lose the constitutional right to abortion? Not all women who need an abortion would find a way to get one. Many would carry the unwanted pregnancy to term and give birth.

The discourse around abortion tends to focus on women and generally fails to consider how being denied an abortion affects the children a pregnant woman already has and those she may have in the future. The research is clear: Restricting access to abortion doesn’t just harm women — it harms their children as well.

For the past decade, I have been leading the nationwide Turnaway Study at the University of California, San Francisco. My colleagues and I have followed more than 200 women who were denied abortions because they showed up at abortion facilities too late in pregnancy. More than two-thirds of these women carried the unwanted pregnancy to term and gave birth. Our study shows that denying a woman a wanted abortion has a negative impact on her life and the lives of her children.

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More than half of women who seek abortions are already mothers. There are three sets of children whose lives may be affected by whether a woman receives or is denied an abortion:

  • the child or children a woman already has when seeking an abortion
  • the child born from an unwanted pregnancy
  • the child or children born from a pregnancy after an abortion

By comparing the outcomes of children of women who were denied abortions to those of more than 400 women who received abortions, we have been able to see the impact of abortion on women’s existing and future children.

Our latest research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, shows what happens to women’s existing children. Consistent with mothers’ concerns that raising a new child would limit their ability to care for their existing children, we found significantly worse socioeconomic outcomes for children whose mothers were denied abortions than those who received them: a greater chance of living below the poverty level (72 percent compared to 55 percent) or living in a household without enough money to cover food, housing, and transportation (87 percent compared to 70 percent).

We also saw a small but significant reduction in achieving developmental milestones among children whose mothers were denied abortions compared to those who received them, possibly related to the increased financial strain on the family.

Among women who seek an abortion but are denied it, more than 90 percent choose to keep and raise the child rather than place it for adoption. What is life like for these children? We compared children born after their mothers were denied abortions to the next children born to women who received abortions. Writing in JAMA Pediatrics, we showed that children born to women who were denied abortions fared worse. They were more likely to live in households where there wasn’t enough money to pay for basic living expenses. Women are also much more likely to report poor maternal bonding — feeling trapped as a mother, resenting their baby, or longing for the “old days” before they had the baby — with the child born after abortion denial than with the next child born following a wanted abortion.

One explanation for these differences is that pregnancies after an abortion are much more likely to be intended than those for which an abortion was sought. As we wrote in the journal Contraception, women who received a wanted abortion were more likely to have an intended pregnancy in the next five years than women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term. In other words, being able to access abortion gives women the opportunity to have a child later with the right partner, at the right time.

A woman in the Midwest who had an abortion six months after the birth of her first child and who had another baby five years after her abortion told us, “It would have been probably the worst thing for that child to come into this world because it would have never had the support it needed. I wasn’t mentally stable for that child. I do have a 1-year-old now and I am able to support myself, able to support my kids, and know the timing is right. Financially, now, it all makes sense. … But, to have two [children] 12 months apart without that abortion, there’s just no way I would be where I am right now if I would have kept that child.”

Whether to have an abortion can be a difficult decision to make. The fetus could develop into a unique person that would never get another chance to be born. A woman must also consider her own life goals, which may include taking care of her existing children, and the chance to have children under better circumstances when she can better take care of herself and a new baby.

The decision is a complicated balancing of responsibilities and opportunities that must be weighed by each woman, not made by politicians or Supreme Court justices. If a woman wants an abortion and cannot get one — a likely outcome for many if abortion becomes even more restricted than it already is — she will face diminished opportunities to achieve other life goals, gain secure financial footing, and have a child she can cherish and support.

Diana Greene Foster, Ph.D., is the director of research at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.

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  • I am puzzled and disgusted by the comments of Margaret Sanger – “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” It appears that many women do not exercise or demand control of their bodies until they become pregnant. Why is that? I find this to be incredibly demeaning to women. The euphemism “reproductive health” is dishonest, at best. Abortion statistics are readily available. Rape accounts for less than 0.5% of all abortions. Unmarried women age 20-24 account for most abortions. Women living with a partner to whom they are not married account for 25% of abortions. Black women are 3.5 times more likely than white women to have abortions. The abortion rate of women with Medicaid is three times as high as that of other women, although Medicaid does not usually cover abortion. The abortion rate of non-metropolitan women is about half that of women who live in metropolitan areas. These statistics are very telling.

  • If you believe life begins at conception then you need to realize a life has been lived. You don’t know God’s purpose for any life.

  • Please help me understand the logic here! If the mother gets an abortion, she is justified in order to not negatively impact the life of the child, as would be the case if she was denied the abortion? Therefore, it is better to deny the child life than to subject them to poverty, or a mother who was unable to achieve goals that may have been easier to achieve if she hadn’t been burdened by the unwanted child? This reasoning escapes me.

  • What a load of balcony this article is. I was an unplanned pregnancy in 70s UK. My mother was student at university with 1 year to complete the degree. She gave the lot up, got married and raised me. Although money was sparse my childhood was happy. I’m glad grew up in a ‘poor’ home than was aborted and denied my life. I am an extremely happy person as an adult. Thanks mom.

  • what kind of garbage opinion piece is this??!! The real fact is that kids raised by a single parent fare worse than their peers. Don’t want to raise a child? Don’t have sex or be safe. Too late?? Put the child up for adoption.

    • Did you know that by the age of 18, 20% of children put into foster care are expected to be homeless? According to the National Foster Youth Insititute, there is a less than 3% chance that foster care youth will ever recieve a college degree. In this day in age this means these children will most likely live in poverty given that the federal minimum wage is about 7 dollars/hour. U.S. families adopted more than 7,000 children in 2012, yet over 100k children await adoption from the American foster care system every year. 1 out of every 2 kids who age out of the system will develop a substance dependence.

    • You can say what people “should” or “need” to do every moment for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do what you say. And it’s rather naive to think they will.

  • My mother was forced to raise me but never wanted to and she raised me in her hate. I have the worst life imaginable and nothing i do helps because this mother i have has sabotaged my entire life and stolen my life chances. Id rather not have been born to her. Her hatred of the 38-year-old man that impregnated her at the age of 17 has been evident all of my life And she is proud of ruining my life she enjoys seeing me live in poverty she enjoyed having my children live their lives in foster care. And even though I will soon be 50 years old she is still taunting me with her hate

    • I’m so sorry. But your mother does not have the right to treat you this just because she didn’t want you. Nobody has the right to mistreat someone because they didn’t want it. And Abortions are protecting abusive people. It’s like saying, “do you want the mother to resent and abuse her child? No then stop trying to make abortions illegal!” To which I respond ” do you want to be raped by a man that hates women? No? Then cover up!?” See how stupid that agrument is? Please do not let anyone defend your mother. Just because someone doesn’t want things doesn’t mean it excuse their actions NOR does it mean we have to minimize it by giving them what they want. Minimizing is effective through birth control in both genders. Your value does not depend on your parents but within you. With much love and hugs.

  • To be clear, Children who are killed before being born, “Fare better” than “Their Peers.”

    I was adopted. My teenage mother decided to go full term, and give me up to a loving and caring family. To my birth mother, “I’m doing just fine!” Thanks!!!

    -Erick 42, Production Designer in the Motion Picture Industry

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