The Legacy of Roe v. Wade and the War on Poverty

Legalized abortion has helped vulnerable women realize the promise of the War on Poverty.

This column contains a correction.

This year we celebrate both the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Less than 10 years before the Supreme Court handed down a decision that allowed women the right to an abortion, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in 1963. The subsequent creation of social safety net programs such as Medicaid, Head Start, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, marked the beginning of an incredible journey that helped reframe the destiny of American women.

The legalization of abortion bolstered the promise of the War on Poverty for women and families. In the years prior to the Roe decision, poor women bore the brunt of unplanned pregnancy. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, approved birth control pills in 1960, many states did not allow doctors to prescribe them to unmarried women. Coupled with the drug’s high cost, women who lived in poverty struggled to control their family size and take advantage of America’s economic opportunities. President Johnson’s War on Poverty, however, gave women unprecedented access to necessary health care services through the first federal family planning grants. Family planning dollars further increased when Congress enacted Title X in the 1970s, which explicitly funded reproductive health services for low-income women.

Increasing women’s reproductive autonomy was an investment in more educated and empowered families that could strengthen their communities and ultimately the nation. The War on Poverty was the catalyst to move women toward greater economic mobility, access to affordable health care, and the promise of equal economic and social opportunity in America.

Economic mobility

The War on Poverty was the beginning of a new day. For the first time, the theory of economic mobility was put into practice through President Johnson’s budget and a series of new laws that guaranteed rights to health care, food, and education. For women, however, economic mobility was not simply a matter of managing money or resources but also the ability to control if and when they would have children. Women’s health has always had a direct impact on families’ well-being, but after Roe, it began to influence the workforce as well.

Legalized abortion, access to birth control pills, and civil rights legislation allowed women to be more self-sufficient, both by controlling their fertility and taking advantage of the various educational and economic opportunities created by the War on Poverty. By the late 1960s, women were approaching education, career, marriage, and children in a way that no generation had before. The social and economic impact of Roe not only ushered women into the workforce, but it also allowed women to contribute to the economic stability of their families. Fifty years later, women make up 50 percent of the workforce and are increasingly breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. The high percentage of women working outside of the home is directly linked to access to birth control and legalized abortion. It has also played a critical role in enabling women to contribute to the economic mobility of their families. However, a woman’s contribution often hinges on her ability to control her health and balance her unique set of circumstances.

Equal access to health care

President Johnson understood that affordable health care was critical to lifting people out of poverty and maintaining economic prosperity. The creation of Medicaid had a profound effect on women, particularly women of color, getting access to the care they needed. After Roe became the law of the land, this included abortion services as well as the preventive care that comes with family planning. Prior to the passage of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prevents the spending of federal dollars for abortion services except in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother, poor women used this vital source of funds to take care of their health, and in many instances, it saved their lives.

Before Roe v. Wade, many women sought illegal abortion services. Poor women and women of color, who often sought out cheaper and consequently more dangerous services, had higher rates of death or damaging complications such as hemorrhaging and septic shock. This resulted in a public health crisis that impacted everyone, not just women. Approximately 5,000 women died annually from illegal abortions—many of whom were mothers, wives, and caregivers. Many others suffered from other long-term health problems such as high-risk future pregnancies or infertility. Women as caregivers and human beings needed to have more control over their lives and the dignity of access to safe health care, regardless of their income.

After the passage of Hyde, poor women once again ceased to have the War on Poverty’s promise of access to affordable health care for all of the essential services that impact their reproductive lives. Medicaid continued to cover sterilizations, experimental drugs that prevented pregnancy, and childbirth but not abortion. While 17 states have decided through legislative action or court decision to use their own budgets to cover this procedure, poor women in the remaining states still lack access to abortion.

Equal opportunity and the American Dream

A critical result of the War on Poverty and the Roe decision is the realization that economic security, educational opportunity, and health are inseparable. More importantly, women’s right to control their own fertility and government action to protect that right are essential to ensure that the War on Poverty’s promise becomes a lived experience. Abortion access is a critical component to women’s lives as they balance raising a family, engaging in healthy relationships, and pursuing economic and educational opportunities.

Abortion is not affordable or easily accessible today and thereby is not truly a right for all women. According to Dr. Susan Wood, abortions costs as much as a month of rent for some women. Accessing this legal health service should not require women to choose between medical care and their family’s economic stability.


This year, we will celebrate Roe by working to ensure that all women have access to abortion services, regardless of their income or source of insurance. The War on Poverty rages on, and it must continue until all women and girls have the economic, social, and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about their bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for themselves, their families, and their communities in all areas of their lives.

Heidi Williamson is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress.

*Correction, January 24, 2014: This column incorrectly stated the number of states that offer Medicaid coverage for abortion. The correct number is 17.

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Heidi Williamson

Senior Policy Analyst