Roe’s overturning ushers in a new era of American life. Many pro-choice advocates mourn for the women living in states with restrictive abortion laws. To them, limiting access to abortion means new constraints on women’s liberty. But access to abortion has hidden costs for both the mother and child. With new restrictions on abortion in some states, many moms and their babies will no longer bear those costs.
An unexpected pregnancy amid difficult circumstances can bring significant strains. However, abortion doesn’t eliminate women’s burdens; it offloads burdens onto the defenseless. Instead of freeing women to depend on others and be depended upon by their children, abortion cloaks the loss of a child and the mother’s wounds.
Two recent stories highlight the unbearable decision that legal abortion offers women. Abortion provider Christine Henneberg wrote in The Point magazine about her colleague, Sandra, who became unexpectedly pregnant. Sandra was resolute in her decision to have an abortion, so she got one. But even in her certainty, she regretted it. Hennenberg said of Sandra, “She was in agony, like many of my patients: clear in her decision, certain of it, and still devastated by it. To her it was a ‘choice’ that didn’t feel like a choice at all.”
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And women often must make this choice alone. The rhetoric of bodily autonomy (“my body, my choice”) is meant to empower women, but it places an agonizing burden squarely on their shoulders. Fathers who say they’ll support any decision leave mothers isolated in deciding the fate of the child they conceived together. Hennenberg recalls a conversation with Sandra:
“He [my boyfriend] told me he would support me no matter what I decided to do, that it’s entirely my choice. But . . .”—she pursed her lips and pressed her eyes shut, holding back a fresh round of tears—“But even him saying that shows me he’s not ready either. He doesn’t realize how much it will take, how it will affect me, and our future. He’s trying to support me but . . . he doesn’t see how alone I feel when he says that, when he puts it all on me.”
Unwelcome pregnancies present a challenge with no easy solution. This challenge is not unique to our culture: in ancient Rome, for example, undesired babies were discarded in dumping grounds. Today, rates of unplanned pregnancies remain high: around 45 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended.
When a baby enters the scene unexpectedly, it’s understandable that parents sometimes blanch initially. New life means significant adjustments: pregnancy is hard on women’s bodies, and children require vast effort, time, and resources. Adult lives must be rearranged to accommodate these tiny new ones. But it’s hard to see how presenting women with a devastating choice is the best solution to the dilemma of undesired pregnancy. No woman—whether due to social, economic, family, or romantic pressures—should face the horror of considering whether to end her baby’s life.
The Washington Post’s June 20 story “This Texas teen wanted an abortion. She now has twins” looks at what happened to an eighteen-year-old woman who learned she was pregnant just before Texas’s Heartbeat Act went into effect last year. Brooke Alexander initially sought an abortion but first needed an ultrasound to determine if she was eligible for one. During the ultrasound, she learned she was twelve weeks pregnant with twins. She had only been dating the father three months, and he preferred abortion. She had little family support or financial resources. Yet she ended up keeping the babies.
Based on the reporting, Brooke seems glad she has her twins. The Texas law essentially freed her from choosing something unthinkable: it created enough barriers to immediate abortion access to dissuade her from seeking one. The Post reports:
“Who’s to say what I would have done if the law wasn’t in effect?” she [Brooke] said. “I don’t want to think about it.” Brooke considered all that she’d lost: long nights at the skate park, trips to the mall, dropping $30 on a crab dinner just because she felt like it.
“I can’t just really be free,” she said. “I guess that really sums it up. That’s a big thing that I really miss.” She sat silently for a while, Olivia’s hand wrapped around her finger. “It’s really scary thinking that I wouldn’t have them,” she said.
Even though she’s glad to have her babies, Brooke’s financial and family instability create distressing hardship for her. Freedom from abortion does not liberate single, low-income mothers from their extremely trying circumstances. That’s why, in the wake of Dobbs, vulnerable moms like Brooke must receive support, resources, and love.
Supporting Family Life
In recent weeks, Public Discourse authors have emphasized the importance of fostering a post-Roe, pro-family culture, but it is worth saying again and again in light of the Dobbs decision: now is the time to systematically support moms and dads—at the individual level, the governmental level, and everywhere in between. After all, moms and dads depend on others giving more so that their young can depend on them.
At the individual level, we should encourage people to assist mothers in need. For example, since the Post article’s publication, Brooke has received more than $70,000 from strangers on her Go Fund Me page. Ultimately, we must strive to create a culture in which this kind of proactive and generous assistance becomes the norm.
Individuals can also support crisis pregnancy centers, and give to other private organizations and religious orders. For example, the Sisters of Life—a Catholic community of women who not only take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but also a fourth vow to “protect and enhance the sacredness of human life”—provide extensive support to pregnant women, as well as women recovering from abortions, end of life care, and much else.
At the legislative level, bills like Sen. Romney’s Family Security Act 2.0 are worth pursuing. Romney’s proposal would provide a monthly cash benefit that would reach more families than the current Child Tax Credit does. The plan would even provide funds during the last four months of pregnancy. Support during pregnancy could cover some prenatal care expenses and help with high-ticket baby items needed prior to birth—like car seats and sleeping gear. And of course the expenses only continue after babies arrive, so having a cash benefit that arrives each month would bring quick and much needed relief to many families. This kind of support means that moms, free from facing abortion, will find it a little easier to care for their children and themselves.
Unfortunately, none of the states with pro-life laws offer paid family leave. Residents in those states should work tirelessly to change this reality. Without paid family leave, low-income and some middle-class working moms must either forgo their income while recovering from childbirth (that is, if they qualify for job protection), or return to work before they’ve fully recovered. Premature return to work is, of course, especially challenging for moms in physically demanding roles. Even jobs that require standing for long periods could spell serious medical setbacks for women healing from birth.
In the longer term, while many women in states with pro-life laws will be free from an unthinkable choice, we must make abortion a choice that no woman wants in the first place. For now, we can celebrate the Dobbs decision as a seismic change in American politics and culture that frees millions of women from the invisible but very real wounds that abortion creates.