What is the pro-life movement? I’ve always envisioned it as broader than just efforts to make abortion illegal. After the 2022 election, in which voters rejected candidates perceived to be extreme in their pro-abortion stance, those concerned about the well-being of unborn children might want to reconsider their focus.
The immediate aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was arguably a legal mess. A number of states had during the reign of Roe v. Wade passed so-called “trigger laws” stipulating that if Roe were overthrown, abortions would be restricted in various ways. Idaho law, for example, prohibited abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and endangering the life of the mother. Louisiana law did not allow exceptions in cases of rape or incest, only for maternal life or “serious permanent impairment of a life-supporting organ of the pregnant woman.” Utah law includes an exception for “severe fetal abnormalities.” Bans have been blocked by courts in 11 states. The litigation is ongoing and likely to continue for years to come as the courts grapple with cases that expose the limitations and ambiguities of the law.
In Ohio, a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion. Pro-Lifers initially thought the story was made up, but it was true. Ohio law, like that of Louisiana, permitted an abortion when “a medically diagnosed condition … renders the woman’s pregnancy so difficult as to cause, directly or indirectly, the significant and irreversible impairment of an important bodily function.” It’s well known that pregnancy is dangerous for very young girls, but would age 10 be considered a “medically diagnosed condition” under Ohio law?
Voters have shown a clear preference for legislation allowing early-stage abortions. Kansas led the way last August by rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have allowed lawmakers to set strict limits. Meanwhile, abortion restrictions have been overcome across the board. It is safe to say that the legal strategy of banning abortion will face continued backlash from voters.
What can the pro-life movement realistically achieve with its narrow focus on the law? Thirteen mostly sparsely populated states have (for now) enacted abortion bans. How much less abortion will there be in America as a result? The states with the highest abortion rates are mostly blue. The District of Columbia has the highest rate at 32.7 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. New York is second, followed by New Jersey and Maryland. The 10 states with the lowest abortion rates are all red, and most are sparsely populated: Wyoming, South Dakota, Kentucky, Idaho, and more. And as you can guess from the geography, most abortions are requested by Black (38%) and Hispanic (21%) women. Whites make up 33%.
Today, most abortions in America are medical abortions. A number of states have moved to ban abortifacients, but given our national track record in restricting cocaine, fentanyl and heroin, such laws will be leaky at best.
While the abortion rate has fallen dramatically since 1990, the percentage of poor or low-income women who obtain abortions has risen sharply. According to the Alan B. Guttmacher Institute, 75% of women who terminated a pregnancy in 2014 were either poor or low-income.
Their reasons for having an abortion vary, but women often cite economic hardship as the main motivator. So the pro-life movement is essentially adding a disruptive factor to poor and minority women in the red and purple states.
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The charge against the pro-life movement that I’ve always found unfair was that they cared little about real mothers and babies and simply wanted to control women, or worse, harm women. The narrow-minded legal strategy lends this accusation a touch of plausibility. Why not focus on concrete reforms that can transform women’s lives?
We need a big push to get contraceptives into the hands of every woman who wants them. Half of the women with unwanted pregnancies had not used any contraception in the month they conceived. Many cite cost as a factor. A doctor’s appointment should not be required to receive oral contraceptives. All major medical groups agree. So let’s launch a campaign to enable the sale of birth control pills over the counter.
Every abortion is a tragedy. And while it’s unrealistic to use the law to ban women from having an abortion if they choose to, there are thousands of expectant mothers who wish there was an alternative. They need financial and moral support and we should provide it. Wouldn’t it be better to spend time and money on support groups for struggling mothers than to limit Louisiana’s abortion exceptions? Every child should be received in love. The pro-life movement should focus on helping more women avoid unwanted pregnancies and making sure that expectant mothers who really just need financial, practical or emotional support can find it.
Mona Charen is the politics editor of The Bulwark and host of the podcast Beg to Differ.
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