On 11 August 2018, Chelsea Clinton was a featured speaker at the New York City stop on the Rise Up for Roe tour, a moveable rally promoting reproductive rights activism organized by Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Demand Justice Initiative.
Given the ideological chasm between supporters of the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision guaranteeing women's access to abortion and those who would reverse it, the subject matter was bound to be controversial. But one thing Clinton said in particular was singled out for condemnation in the conservative press and on social media.
This is how the Media Research Center's CNSNews.com opened its report on her remarks:
Abortion has been an important economic stimulus ever since it was legalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Chelsea Clinton claimed at a "Rise Up for Roe" event on Saturday.
At the event promoting opposition to President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the former First Daughter of President Bill Clinton credited legalized abortion for helping add trillions of dollars to the U.S economy because women who had abortions were more inclined to enter the labor force:
"Whether you fundamentally care about reproductive rights and access right, because these are not the same thing, if you care about social justice or economic justice, agency -- you have to care about this.
"It is not a disconnected fact -- to address this t-shirt of 1973 -- that American women entering the labor force from 1973 to 2009 added three and a half trillion dollars to our economy. Right?
"The net, new entrance of women -- that is not disconnected from the fact that Roe became the law of the land in January of 1973."
LifeNews.com, a website devoted to pro-life news, ran a headline stating "Chelsea Clinton Claims Aborting 60 Million Babies Since Roe 'Added $3.5 Trillion to Our Economy.'"
A commentary on TruthFeedNews.com said, "Clinton is now trotting around the country trying to convince people that abortion is 'great' for the economy."
On social media, a critic went so far as to compare what Clinton said with defending slavery as a boon to the economy. The most vituperative reaction was surely that of Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, who issued a tweet equating Clinton with Hitler:
.@ChelseaClinton, daughter of former President @BillClinton & @HillaryClinton, claims that legalizing abortion added trillions of dollars to the economy. What a lie. Hitler probably also claimed that killing the Jews would be good for their economy. 1/3 https://t.co/q381oYx7nP
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) August 15, 2018
However, a careful examination of Clinton's remarks reveals they were not always accurately paraphrased by her critics. This is a transcript of her exchange with Rise Up for Roe's moderator, Lauren Duca:
DUCA: I think that something we keep talking about is you use your voice in this way and you understand reproductive rights as essential and not something that can be dismissed as a social issue. Can you tell us your kind of argument for that and what we can carry with us when we're hoping to recruit others in this fight?
CLINTON: I really resonate, Lauren, with how you and everyone on the stage has talked about this so far, because whether you fundamentally care about reproductive rights and access -- because, again, these are not the same thing -- if you care about social justice or economic justice, agency, you have to care about this, right? It is not a disconnected fact -- to address this t-shirt of 1973 -- that American women entering the labor force from 1970 to 2009 added three-and-a-half trillion dollars to our economy. Right?
The net, new entrance of women -- that is not disconnected from the fact that Roe became the law of the land in January of 1973.
So, I think, whatever it is that people say they care about, I think that you can connect to this issue. Of course, I would hope that they would care about our equal rights and dignity to make our own choices -- but, if that is not sufficiently persuasive, hopefully some of these other arguments that you’re hearing expressed so beautifully will be.
Note that at no point did Clinton literally say that Roe v. Wade (much less tens of millions of abortions) added $3.5 trillion to the economy. She said that women entering the labor force in the decades after the 1973 decision added $3.5 trillion to the economy, and that these developments were connected. (Although Clinton didn't cite a source for the statistic, it likely came from a 2011 report by the McKinsey Global Institute noting the macroeconomic benefits of some 38 million women joining the labor force between 1970 and 2009.)
Moreover, to suggest that Roe v. Wade made it possible for more women to join the workforce is not the same as saying that it was because they all had abortions. The mere fact that abortion services were accessible and provided women with an alternative to dropping out of the labor force if they became pregnant could have served as an encouragement to them, even if they never availed themselves of those services.
For that matter, not all of the increase in women's participation in the workforce since 1970 can be attributed to Roe v. Wade (nor did Clinton suggest that it should be). Other social and economic changes took place at the same time that affected how women perceived their roles and the life choices available to them.
It's accurate to say that Chelsea Clinton asserted a connection between Roe v. Wade and an influx of women into the labor force that added three-and-a-half trillion dollars to the U.S. economy between 1970 and 2009. It is not accurate to say that she credited that economic growth wholly to abortion.