Opinion | Bans Haven’t Lowered the National Abortion Rate. Pro-Lifers Must Find Another Way.

Most abortion opponents did not expect the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the passage of state abortion bans to lead to the expansion of legal abortion in much of the United States.

But this in fact is what happened: While 16 states ban most or virtually all abortions a year and a half after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in June 2022, abortion numbers went up in states where it is legal. As anti-abortion groups prepare for their annual March for Life on Friday, they face the reality that the past year brought a string of defeats for their cause, with abortion-rights supporters winning victories in every abortion referendum submitted to voters, even in conservative states. Opponents of abortion are now on the defensive.

That’s largely because their strategy has focused on passing bans, which have been politically polarizing and have alienated members of the Democratic Party — a party that only a few decades ago included many supporters of the pro-life cause.

It didn’t have to be this way. As a historian of the anti-abortion movement and abortion politics, I wrote in early 2021 that the end of Roe may “only marginally reduce the number of legal abortions” in the United States and “at worst, may lead to a pro-choice Democratic backlash that will expand the number of legal abortions.”

I also pointed to another way to reduce abortions in the United States — expanding the social safety net so more pregnant women choose to keep their babies. Some abortion opponents advocated this strategy nearly 50 years ago, but it was largely forgotten after the anti-abortion movement allied with the political right in the Reagan era. Today, as the anti-abortion movement faces new challenges amid a rising national abortion numbers, it may be time to rediscover this forgotten path.

After Roe, in 1973, resulted in the legalization of abortion in every state, opponents of abortion were divided as to how best to defend unborn human life. Most anti-abortion organizations favored a constitutional amendment that would protect human life from the moment of conception.

But a few abortion opponents — especially those who were liberal Democrats — believed that instead of embarking on what appeared to be a politically impossible quest for such an amendment, they could prevent abortions by offering help to women facing pregnancies amid hardship.

For instance, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose husband, Sargent Shriver, was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, campaigned for federal legislation that would establish a nationwide network of crisis pregnancy and infant-care centers. “The best way to fight abortion is really to offer alternatives to abortion,” she declared.

This was not a new idea for anti-abortion organizations, which before Roe v. Wade had floated proposals like “birth insurance” to care for infants needing expensive medical treatment, subsidized adoption and government-funded day care.

But Roe interrupted those plans and prompted nearly all anti-abortion organizations to make an anti-abortion constitutional amendment the litmus test by which they evaluated political candidates, regardless of their stances on other measures that might reduce the abortion rate by offering assistance to pregnant women in need of support.

In the 1980s, anti-abortion organizations shifted their focus to the more achievable goal of reversing Roe through a Supreme Court decision — a change in tactics that solidified their support for the Republican Party, since Republican presidents and senators were far more likely than the Democrats to favor judicial nominees who objected to Roe.

Now that Roe is gone, anti-abortion groups have pinned their hopes on bans as the primary way to protect unborn human life. But those bans have proved more unpopular than they expected, and have had less effect on the national abortion rate than they would have liked. Reports in late 2023 indicated that the annual number of abortions in the United States may have been higher after Dobbs than before the decision, since bans in some states were offset by increased protections for abortion rights elsewhere.

The anti-abortion movement believed that legal prohibitions could move the cultural consensus in a pro-life direction, but it seems that the opposite has happened. New abortion clinics were constructed in Illinois and New Mexico to serve women from nearby states with restrictive laws, as clinics across the nation (even in conservative Florida) reported an increase in demand for abortions. After voters approved an abortion-rights amendment to the Ohio Constitution in November, supporters of abortion rights redoubled their efforts to put the issue on the ballot in other states, from Florida to Arizona.

In such a political climate, abortion opponents must focus on changing hearts and minds before changing laws. They need to win public trust by demonstrating that their respect for life does not end with birth.

A 2023 Guttmacher Institute study showed that 42 percent of the people who had abortions had incomes below the poverty line. Another study showed that 40 percent of those having abortions cited financial considerations as a primary reason for their decision — which suggests that economic assistance would probably enable some women who have abortions to instead choose to carry their pregnancies to term. Paid family leave policies may be particularly effective at reducing abortion rates, according to one 2010 study.

Many religious and private charitable organizations are already providing assistance to pregnant women at a limited scale, but support for comprehensive national programs would extend the benefits of this strategy to a far greater number of women.

In the 1970s, when the movement included a substantial number of Democrats and many supporters of the social programs of the New Deal and Great Society, proposals like the ones the Shrivers presented might have made sense to abortion opponents — but what will today’s conservative Republican abortion foes think of them?

To save unborn lives, the anti-abortion movement may have to move beyond partisan thinking and support any proposals that are likely to reduce abortion, even when they come from Democrats. In at least a few conservative states, some Republican legislators are already supporting free college tuition benefits, state Medicaid expansions for new mothers, reforms in the adoption and foster care systems, and paid family leave — all of which have the potential to reduce abortion rates as they reduce the economic burden on those caring for children, or empower mothers to advance their economic prospects and secure higher-paying jobs.

Abortion opponents should demand that lawmakers at both the state and national level prove their pro-life bona fides by supporting measures such as these that will offer positive alternatives to abortion — just as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other abortion opponents (including myself) joined with supporters of abortion rights in pushing for protections for pregnant workers. The Senate passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act a year ago with strong bipartisan support.

Since the anti-abortion movement’s narrow focus on bans has alienated potential allies and failed to reduce the number of abortions, it needs to look again at a strategy that holds greater promise. A paid family leave plan or a state Medicaid expansion might not offer the movement the same immediately satisfying sense of victory as a state abortion ban — but, in the end, it might save a greater number of unborn lives.

Daniel K. Williams teaches American history at Ashland University and is the author of “The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.”

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