Around 25 years ago, a young friend of mine had an accidental pregnancy. What should she do? This was New York City, so abortion, with state Medicaid funding, was readily available. Adoption, private or through an agency, was another possibility—lots of people would want a healthy white newborn. But what if she wanted to have the baby and keep it?
She had very little money, and her housing situation was untenable. Among many other fruitless queries, I tried the office of our local top Catholic, Cardinal John O’Connor, then in the news for his strong anti-abortion views. Did they know of a place where my friend could live while awaiting the birth? Sorry, I was told, all eight beds were filled.
Eight beds? The Catholic Church is a fantastically wealthy institution, owner of vast amounts of New York City real estate. It opposes abortion under any circumstance. And the best it could do for pregnant women in a jam was eight beds? (The cardinal’s office didn’t tell me, but I’ve since found out the church also has a program called Good Counsel Homes that serves a few hundred women per year. At the time, about 100,000 abortions were performed per year in New York City.)
I thought of my friend while reading the latest round of promises from abortion opponents about all the great things they’ll do for women who will be forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies, now that the Supreme Court seems ready to overturn Roe v. Wade or at least permit greater restrictions on the right to choose. On the New York Times opinion page, Erika Bachiochi writes, “If Roe goes, the pro-life movement can begin where it left off in 1973, working to convince fellow citizens (especially in blue states like mine) that we owe dependent and vulnerable unborn children what every human being is due: hospitality, respect and care.”
Excuse me, but couldn’t the pro-life movement have been doing that all along? There are already plenty of women unable to get the abortions they want because of anti-abortion victories. The Hyde Amendment, which bans federal Medicaid funding for abortions, has been in place since 1976. Hundreds of clinics have closed in the past 10 years; six states have only one at the time of this writing. And what about the women who end pregnancies they’d keep if they had a helping hand?
Bachiochi, a conservative Catholic activist, links to some help: a network of crisis pregnancy centers and Mary’s Shelter, a Catholic home for pregnant and new mothers in Fredericksburg, Va. I’m not demeaning the work of these organizations or the good intentions of those who work there—many CPCs are deceptive and coercive, but some do offer useful services. Indeed, some women who use them have no intention of getting an abortion; they just want some diapers and a stroller. There is just no way, however, that private charities can function on the scale necessary, any more than food pantries can feed all the hungry. And here’s the thing: Food pantries don’t say, “Wow, when the government abolishes food stamps, we’ll really swing into action.” Real charities don’t spend their lives trying to make a situation worse with a promise to remedy it later.
Given the massive scale required—we’re talking about tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of women a year, depending on how many can’t manage to travel to states with liberal abortion laws or procure illegal abortions—government assistance is essential. Yet for many decades now, the anti-abortion movement has allied itself with a party that has undermined the very notion of the public good and promoted harsh cuts in every program that would help low-income pregnant women, mothers, and children survive and thrive, from TANF and food stamps to the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid it permits. It’s all very well to talk about modern-day versions of the “homes for unwed mothers” that were a staple of 1950s and ’60s life and to promise that this time round, they won’t be cruel and bully women into giving up their babies. Recently, The Washington Post profiled Aubrey Schlackman, an evangelical fundamentalist in Texas who hopes to start a “maternity ranch,” “a Christian haven where women could live stress-free during their newborn’s first year of life.”
Maybe the unfortunately named place—are women cattle?—will be a lovely refuge, as Schlackman hopes, filled with sisterhood and peace. But the plan calls for accommodations for up to just 20 women—a tiny drop in a swelling ocean of misery and desperation and exploitation.
“Pro-life” assistance, whether stingy or generous, tends to come with strings attached. That ranch will have Bible classes and prayer and resident couples who model “healthy relationships,” aka Christian female-subordinate marriage. “There’s always a quid pro quo,” Parker Dockray of All-Options in Bloomington, Ind., told me, referring to her local CPCs. To get five or 10 or 15 diapers, a woman has to sit through a class or listen to a lecture on the evils of abortion, sometimes with Christian proselytizing thrown in. Distributing diapers “should be a compassionate, basic response,” Dockray said. “It shouldn’t be tied to manipulating people into not having an abortion.”
All-Options is an unusual operation, a one-stop shop for reproductive needs. It has an abortion fund to help poor women pay for their procedure and a national phone line women can call to talk about their situation, whatever it is; it gives out menstrual products, condoms, and, yes, diapers—a month’s supply at a time. “We want to meet their needs holistically. Why should they go to different places for pregnancy, abortion, miscarriage, baby needs? Those things are all connected.” It cannot be said often enough that most women who have abortions are mothers. The woman who needs an abortion and the woman who needs diapers are the same person.
“Helping people know that they have options helps people to make a decision they want,” Dockray told me. “Which might not be abortion.” As for my young friend, she chose to have her baby. It was the right decision for her, and “pro-life” preaching had nothing to do with it.