It’s a time with great potential. But it’s also a time of risk. Commentators on the left and right are expecting the Supreme Court to overrule or substantially alter Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A pro-life outcome in Dobbs, however, would not stop abortion in America. Overruling Roe would merely return the issue to the states. Many states are loudly declaring that they will continue to allow and even subsidize abortions while many other states have trigger laws that will limit access to abortion. Dobbs is likely to be the beginning, and not the end, of a new front in the long political and cultural struggle over abortion in America.
This reality presents both an opportunity and a challenge. In the immediate aftermath of Dobbs, pro-lifers will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence abortion politics. Public interest and attention will be as high as they ever will be. Congress and state legislatures will be under immense pressure (from both sides) to act, to “do something.” There may not be another window of opportunity like this for decades.
Yet, in our current culture-war circumstances, there is a real possibility that pro-life efforts will needlessly inflame animosity and put the goal of a truly pro-life, pro-family culture further out of reach. Conflict is inevitable on this issue, but policies that are perceived as overly intrusive or hostile to women will alienate the persuadable middle. Instead, pro-lifers should seek to pass common-ground legislation, find ways to attract new adherents to the pro-life movement, and demonstrate compassion and understanding to women facing unwanted pregnancies.
Coming out from under the shadow of Roe offers the genuine opportunity for pro-lifers to work with people of diverse political persuasions to seek a more just and compassionate world. This world would be not only pro-life, but also pro-child, pro-parent, and pro-family. What would a policy and cultural agenda directed at this goal look like?
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A Pro-Family Policy Agenda
There are no easy answers here, and equally committed pro-lifers might come to different conclusions about how to achieve this wider set of aims. The first steps forward may require current pro-life conservatives to modify their more libertarian leanings and support a public policy agenda purposefully targeted to support disadvantaged children and parents. In an era of massive public debt, fiscal considerations are always relevant. But a knee-jerk reaction against all social policy will be detrimental to the cause.
Poverty and abortion can be closely related, and there is no doubt that a significant number of women who choose to end their pregnancies today are poor. They are among a large group of Americans without a college degree who consistently identify direct cash assistance and wage subsidies as their preferred family policies. Direct financial support that does not compromise the need for work requirements frees them to make choices they feel are best for their family, while building their sense of efficacy in being able to provide for their children.
Addressing the realities of the women facing the question of abortion inherently means better addressing the needs of children. A bipartisan working group of scholars convened by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution recently called for a re-evaluation of our national priorities and a “rewriting of the generational contract.” The fact that only 7.4 percent of the federal budget is spent on children while 45 percent is spent on the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is indicative of national priorities. This exposes the need for a reprioritizing to better enable children to have the stable relationships and resources they need to build a strong foundation.
Specifically, strengthening the likelihood that children are raised by their married parents in a stable economic environment should be a top priority. In terms of government assistance, both the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were associated with improved child outcomes by increasing family resources. Senator Mitt Romney’s proposal to transform the child tax credit into a child tax allowance starting four months before the child is born is another example of a policy that alleviates financial strain for families, while enabling them to provide the care they feel is best for their children.
Very low–income families are also more likely to benefit from high-quality childcare compared to other families. But that is best accomplished by targeting funding to enable very low–income families to participate in the highest quality childcare, not creating a one-size-fits-all government child care program that would compromise childcare quality, and deny parents the opportunity to choose the best way to care for their young children.
Better workplace accommodations, including paid leave policies, could also play an important role in providing support for new mothers while also facilitating the healthy bonding that is essential for development. When we focus on children, we inherently support the mothers and families who bear and rear them.
But policy, one might say, is the easy part. Without needed cultural change, policy initiatives will be insufficient. That means taking seriously how abortion on demand teaches that relationships are terminable at will. As Professor David Smolin explains, “abortion rights are a type of disassociation right,” specifically, “a forceful separation of mother and child.” Under our current “regime of autonomy” we are supposed to see the forceful separation of mother and child as somehow “protective of rich associations.” Abortion says not only to the new life within her, but also to the mother herself, “I will love and care for you only when it works for me.”
This message parallels the de-personalized approach to sex that is so prevalent in our culture. Our current sexual culture is fundamentally solipsistic, seeing others as fungible objects in a never-ending quest for personal sexual satisfaction. In her recent book, Rethinking Sex, Christine Emba notes that “the dispassionate, disconnected, empty approach to sexuality was never what we wanted.” Sex is not just about pleasure, “but also closeness, mutuality, even a sense of the sacred.” It might even be about family and children, as well.
Princeton sociologist Kathryn Edin’s extensive exploration of the lives of low-income mothers found a deep and profound “relational poverty” resulting from the lack of stable, deeply committed, and predictable relationships in their lives. These women continued to overwhelmingly desire marriage, though it had become incredibly fragile and rare. In their sexual relations with men, they used contraception intermittently, fearing pregnancy but also not wanting to prevent it. In their sexual risk taking, they yearned for connection and stability, to give and receive enduring love. If not possible in their relationships with men, they had some hope in experiencing that with a child.
For these women, advocacy for abortion only masks their deepest desire for connection and wholeness in relationships—with men as husbands and fathers and with the children of those fathers. A post-Roe world gives us a new opportunity to work toward a world where women (and men) do not have to settle for so much less than they yearn for because abortion has masked what it is they truly need and desire.
Among the most important cultural changes needed, then, is to reclaim marriage and fatherhood as universal cultural assets rather than personal lifestyle choices. Nearly one-third of all women who get an abortion list relationship problems with the father as an important reason for the abortion, just behind financial concerns (40 percent) and poor timing (36 percent). The low-income women Edin interviewed wanted to marry but felt unable, for reasons including their partners’ criminal involvement, incarceration, substance abuse, infidelity, and domestic abuse. In a culture riddled with the challenges of relational and economic poverty, significant barriers made their dreams for marriage difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
While public policy can help to support a pro-marriage cultural change agenda, these challenges demand support from leading institutions and voices. To begin, we need to overcome our squeamishness in acknowledging and protecting the social good of marriage and fatherhood for children’s development. Unfortunately, many academics, such as NYU’s Judith Stacey (author of Brave New Families and Unhitched), have led the way in spreading doubt about the importance of marriage and long-term, stable, healthy parental relationships to children’s well-being. The anti-science contortions in this subject area have been painful to watch and have given a sophisticated imprimatur to the idea that marriage is outdated in our contemporary world (“let a thousand family forms bloom”) and that fathers are fungible.
Academics can appreciate the value of marriage and fatherhood, even with their warts and shortcomings, while still working to help children and parents in all family forms build strong family relationships. In a post-Roe world, we should all be cultural cheerleaders for marriage and fatherhood. And we’re confident we can do this and still be accepting and compassionate when these ideals are not reached. Also, mass media can play an important role here by attending more to marriage and fatherhood, not to mention a more realistic portrait of single parenting. Though the media tend to prioritize edgy and conflict-ridden drama, it could instead explore the great depth and beauty of commonplace marriage and fatherhood. Media could provide models of fathers who, while not perfect, are emotionally connected, competent with children, engaged in household chores, and willing to sacrifice for the good of their family. We should not have to choose between various flavors of family dysfunction or the tired cliché of fathers as bumbling rubes.
Together we can begin to address the significant barriers to marriage identified over decades of research among our most fragile families, including low economic resources, government policies that discourage marriage, gender distrust, acceptance of single motherhood, and psychological factors that make it difficult for parents to maintain healthy relationships. That will require efforts in both the public and the private sphere, economic as well as relational, political as well as cultural.
The potential public policies and cultural work we have suggested do not fit neatly into current political or ideological camps. In our current divisive circumstances, is it Pollyannish to propose a pro-life, pro-family agenda that would require a working merger of conservative and progressive ideologies? Perhaps. But we believe a Supreme Court ruling that strikes down Roe can create a rare opportunity, an openness to something better, a potential inflection point for principled compromise that supports life before and after birth.
If a post-Roe future is defined by even deeper divisions and bare-knuckle election politics, not by a cultural shift in our thinking about how to not only protect innocent life but to support the parents who give and nurture that life, then we will have failed—again.