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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers maps abortion access across the U.S.

Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers has received national coverage for her research following court rulings on abortion access.
Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers has received national coverage for her research following court rulings on abortion access.

Middlebury John G. McCullough Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers and her team of 30 student research assistants have gathered a variety of data about abortion access in the United States. The information the team collected — ranging from the number of open facilities to the average distance Americans have to travel to access abortions — has helped inform choices made by policymakers, national news organizations and individuals about abortion access. 

There are currently 757 open abortion facilities in the U.S. — 39 fewer than there were on March 1, 2022. 616 of 709 surveyed facilities have availability within two weeks. For pregnant people in Texas, the average time to drive to a facility that provides abortions is currently 7.3 hours. This is only a glimpse of the critical economic findings of Myers and her team in contribution to the ongoing study of and conversation surrounding abortion access. 

When Myers is not teaching regression analysis or statistics at Middlebury, she engages with these issues in real-world contexts, gaining extensive experience as an expert witness and consultant for Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Additionally, Myers wrote the economists’ amicus brief submitted ​ to the U.S. Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the 2022 case that overturned Roe v. Wade

The 2022 Dobbs decision elevated abortion accessibility to one of the most politically tumultuous issues in the news today. However, Myers has been quantifying the implications of abortion policy since she began compiling regional data in 2013, and has since become a trusted source for major news outlets to convey the impact of restrictive reproductive policy to their audiences. 

“Whatever you think about abortion, these are questions that economists can answer,” Myers said. 

Myers was forced to act quickly and creatively to ensure that her data is accessible to those trying to understand the impact of these recent court rulings on their personal access to abortion. Myers’ abortion access dashboard has given her a platform to publish data that visually illustrates the causal effects of limiting access to reproductive care in the United States. 

“I hope, and like to think, that many people in the US want to understand how restricting abortion affects people,” Myers told The Campus. “The economic literature on the subject overwhelmingly points to large causal effects of abortion access on women’s economic lives; that doesn't answer every question about abortion, but if we’re going to have a policy debate, let’s at least understand the ways in which it matters.”

As opposed to publishing a peer-reviewed paper, which could take up to months or even years to publish and be made accessible to the public, the abortion access dashboard provides a vehicle for Myers to share replicable, timely data that is useful to policymakers and the public alike. Robust data compiling average driving distances to abortion-providing facilities, appointment availability and changes in the number of facilities in every state is available for public access and media publication.

Prior to the Dobbs decision, Myers’ research was primarily used in academic research. It has only been since June 2022 that the surge of media interest in Myers’ research has exploded. Seeing how the overturning of Roe v. Wade has impacted the lives of Americans across the aisle, a myriad of major news outlets, including the New York Times, Time, the Washington Post and NPR have referenced her findings in their reporting. 

Recently, Myers has been conducting research that isolates and measures the impacts of abortion restrictions, including possible future changes in medication abortion access, on abortion and birth rates. 

The summer 2023 ruling in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans restricting the use of mifepristone — the pill prescribed for medical abortions —  posed a question that Myers’ research, and her team of research assistants at Middlebury, were exceptionally well suited to answer: If the Supreme Court hears this case and upholds the decision, further constraining abortion access, how will access to abortions change for the women most vulnerable to these restrictive policies? 

“This could ultimately be a cataclysm for U.S. abortion access, or it might be nothing,” Myers said in an interview with Time magazine in August 2023.

While the turbulence of the ideological brawl in policy and judiciary spaces over abortion access varies across the country, Myers and her band of Middlebury research assistants and other researchers continue to collect data aimed at answering the most pressing questions of the national debate on abortion.