Ever since Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs was leaked, some anti-abortion writers have been saying that the “culture of life” means supporting pregnant women and their babies, too. “For many pro-life and whole-life leaders,” says the Anglican priest and New York Times opinion writer Tish Harrison Warren, “this Supreme Court decision would represent a starting line, not a finish line.” She asked a sampling of those leaders what should come next, and to be fair, some of their ideas are what progressive feminists have been demanding for decades: paid parental leave, affordable housing, child care, and other anti-poverty, pro-family measures.
That’s all well and good, but I have questions. In the first place, why haven’t these writers been stressing poverty and lack of support for parents all along? Abortion opponents cite an old Guttmacher Institute poll to claim that poverty is the cause of 73 percent of abortions. I have my doubts about that—the poll allows multiple answers, and most people check more than one box. About half of women who get abortions are low-income, but that doesn’t mean they would have the baby if they had more money.
I suppose it’s nice that “poverty” is replacing “being a slut who wants to fit into a prom dress.” But wouldn’t it have made more sense to have provided supports before forcing people to stay pregnant, no matter what? The Hyde Amendment, barring federal Medicaid for nearly all abortions, was passed in 1976 and has been renewed every year since—plenty of time to set up meaningful help for the pregnant poor. If opponents of abortion are right, supporting parents and children would dramatically lower the abortion rate all on its own. Instead, right now, millions of people in abortion-ban states are denied both the right to end a pregnancy and the ability to give that child a decent life.
In the second place, what about birth control? The main reason poor people have more abortions per capita than the better-off is that they have more unintended pregnancies. Why? They have less access to decent, respectful health care, less ability to choose the most effective birth-control methods, and less trust in medicine in general, often with good reason. Sensible people are always urging those on all sides of the abortion debate to unite around contraception. It never happens. Why? In case you hadn’t noticed, the pro-life movement is controlled by the Catholic hierarchy, which opposes “artificial” birth control, and by fundamentalist evangelical Protestants, who are engaged in a death struggle with contemporary sexual mores. Instead of protecting couples from unwanted pregnancy, anti-abortion activists increasingly claim, falsely, that IUDs, emergency contraception, and even the pill are forms of abortion. It’s not an accident that in Warren’s Times column only Kelsey Hazzard, the head of Secular Pro-Life, calls for more birth control.
In the third place, abortion opponents wave away dangerous, disastrous pregnancies. I’d love to hear one of their pundits admit that Ohio’s decision to bar a 10-year-old from ending her pregnancy places her at serious risk, or explain who is helped by forcing someone to stay pregnant in cases when the baby is doomed to die in the womb or shortly after birth. In a Times op-ed, the anti-abortion bioethicist David Albert Jones argues that maternity in countries where abortion is illegal can be just as safe as in countries where abortion is permitted—even safer. As examples, he names Ireland before legalization, Poland, and Malta. That claim ignores the fact that thousands of people in those countries have had abortions by traveling to clinics abroad or taking pills at home. Moreover, it’s not an either/or: Those countries may have safer childbirth than the US, the worst among industrialized nations for maternal mortality—but in the past two years, Polish doctors let one woman die rather than complete her miscarriage and another woman die rather than evacuate her dead twin fetuses. Tish Warren seems like a nice person. What does she have to say about that?
Do abortion opponents who care about poverty have the power to transform a Republican Party devoted to savage cuts in social programs and government supports for the poor? Republican anti-poverty measures have been pretty weak tea given the onrushing crisis. I’m hearing a lot about private charity and churches, a bad sign: The government doesn’t leave things solely in the hands of Good Samaritans when there’s a hurricane or an epidemic.
In Georgia, the bill known as Betsy’s Law passed in May, making it easier to open a private maternity home. I’m sorry, but big whoop. Texas, which passed a near-total abortion ban last September, expanded emergency Medicaid for postpartum care from two months to six; doctors recommend a year. (Bear in mind that Texas, which rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, has the highest percentage of uninsured people in the nation—you have to be practically destitute to qualify.) I see nothing, in short, as bold as the total abortion bans sweeping across the red states, nothing that acknowledges the crisis into which millions of women and others are being plunged. Mitt Romney’s proposed Family Security Act, which would give $350 a month to most families for each child under 5 and $250 for those of school age, comes closest. Even then, only parents earning $10,000 a year qualify, so the poorest are left out. It would be strange indeed if—thanks to Joe Manchin’s refusal to make permanent Joe Biden’s $600 child-support payments to families during Covid—Republicans succeeded where Democrats failed. I’ll believe it when I see it, though, which should be around the time the feds accede to anti-abortion socialist Elizabeth Bruenig’s call in The Atlantic for free pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care for all.
Six states have had only a single clinic since 2019. Indeed, with the curious exception of New Jersey, the 10 worst states for maternal mortality are all red states where abortion is now banned or soon to be so. Mississippi, which brought Dobbs to the Supreme Court, is just about the worst state for every measure of women’s and children’s well-being, and no doubt will continue to be. Its single clinic is now closed. If abortion opponents care about poverty, what have they been waiting for?