New research shows conclusively that women are better off as a result of abortion rights and the endorsement of the pill in national public policies. Birth control rights have caused an increase in women's investment in education, their probability of working, their income levels and their self-reported 'life satisfaction'.
At the same time, other women's rights have been less beneficial. Mutual consent divorce laws have had a negative impact on women's welfare while the granting of maternity rights in the workplace has had no net effect.
The research by Silvia Pezzini of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), published in the Economic Journal, analyses answers by over 450,000 individuals from 12 European countries reporting a self-evaluation of their life satisfaction between 1975 and 1998.
Her aim is to evaluate the private benefits to women stemming from changes to their set of incentives and choices from four different policies: abortion rights; the endorsement of the pill in national public policies; mutual consent divorce; and maternity protection in the workplace. She finds that:
Following the introduction of birth control rights, women who were effectively exposed to the policy (that is, they were of childbearing age at the time the policy was introduced) consistently registered an increase in welfare.
The magnitude of the welfare gain is equivalent to one tenth of going up one level on a 12-category scale of income (roughly gaining £600 more a year on a £20,000 income) or of having higher rather than middle education (or middle rather than low education). It is also equivalent to one third of the gain from being married or cohabiting. It is smaller (by around one third) than the corresponding welfare loss from being unemployed and one seventh of the loss from being separated.
Other women and men have not reported any significant effect.
The effect on women of childbearing age is stronger, the younger the women were when they received birth control rights and the longer they were exposed to them. Marginal returns start to decline after the woman is 35 years old.
Life satisfaction effects are consistent with changes operating through economic choices. The data strongly confirm that birth control rights caused an increase in women's investment in education, probability of working and income level.
Women professing religions that are firmly against birth control rights did not exhibit a change in their welfare.
The analysis shows that mutual consent divorce laws have decreased women's welfare, while granting high maternity protection in the workplace did not have significant effects, possibly because of negative feedback effects on the 'employability' of women.
There is no a priori bet on the direction and size, if any, of these effects. Economists expect an increase in individual welfare from policies that remove previous constraints on women's choices, but anticipate possible adverse effects via the stability of marriages and redistribution within them.
Silvia Pezzini's research takes an innovative approach to deliver the first empirical evaluation of the welfare effects of women's rights. With a method similar to those used in medical evaluations of treating similar subjects with a treatment and a placebo, she tracks the effect of laws passed by certain countries at different times and which affect particular groups of individuals, women of childbearing age (the treatment group), with respect to individuals in control groups.
In addition to their historical importance, these results may provide some guidance on the effects of granting women's rights towards development goals of empowerment. A third of the countries in the world, mainly developing ones, representing a quarter of the world population, do not have birth control rights at all and similar statistics apply to women's rights in general.
Although institutional differences have to be taken into account before applying them to other societies, this analysis suggests an important link between providing individual rights like birth control to women, favouring their empowerment in other fields and increasing their welfare.
Click here and scroll down to download an abstract or the full report
The Effect of Women's Rights on Women's Welfare: evidence from a natural experiment by Silvia Pezzini is published in the March 2005 Economic Journal.
Silvia Pezzini is at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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