According to a working paper (.pdf) by the National Bureau of Economic Research, access to birth control pills raises a woman’s earning potential over the course of her lifetime. Additionally, findings demonstrated that the rapid narrowing of the wage gap that happened between men and women in the 1980s was fueled by women’s access to birth control as well as increased autonomy in their reproductive choices.
The paper outlines a study that took place over a generation, of women born in the 1940’s who became the first generation of adult women with access to birth control. This generation of women, it says, “narrowed the gender gap in college going and completion, attaining professional degrees, and working in non-traditionally female occupations.”
The study found that one crucial factor in this increased chance at life prosperity has been what the study calls ELA, or, Early Legal Access to birth control, specifically “The Pill.”
The Pill’s arrival as a family planning measure was unique in that the act of contraception took place separately from the sex act and only required one partner’s participation. This alone gave women a measure of autonomy that they hadn’t had before.
The study compared states where the age of legal consent for medical care was lowered to 18 to other states where it stayed at 21, thereby enabling young women to make reproductive choices without their parents’ consent.
The paper calls what happened in the states with younger consent ages “an opt-in revolution.” Women entered the labor force younger there, attained higher academic honors, and made substantially greater “human capital investments” in their own careers, i.e., staying with jobs longer and earning higher wages.
Overall, results demonstrated early access to The Pill conferred an 8-percent hourly wage premium by age fifty. Also, a confluence of factors including the women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s, greater access to educational and professional opportunities, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ability to postpone childbearing allowed women to make dramatic gains in the 1980s toward closing the wage gap between men and women.
According to the paper, “The median annual wage and salary earnings of women working full-time, full-year rose from roughly 60 percent of men’s earnings in 1979 to 69 percent a decade later. Not only was this a striking departure from the stability of women’s relative pay during the 1970s, but the speed of women’s convergence in the 1980s was also faster than during the 1990s and the 2000s.”
As Mother Jones magazine’s MoJo blog points out, “This is all the more interesting right now, as the country has been engaged in a heated debate over a provision in the new health care law that would guarantee all women access to birth control at no cost.” It was testimony over that provision that kicked off the firestorm of controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing testimony as it decides whether aspects of the Affordable Care Act are, as critics charge, unconstitutional. Recently, the Obama administration determined that access to medical contraception constituted preventative care and must be covered by insurance.