In the 46 years since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, perhaps no single month has witnessed more aggressive legislative threats to reproductive rights than the one we’re in right now.
In just the last few weeks, Georgia and Alabama passed sweeping bills aimed at effectively banning abortions and punishing the women, gender minorities, and doctors who seek or perform the procedure.
Those bills will likely never actually be implemented, thanks to lawsuits filed almost immediately after they were signed into law, but that’s largely by design. Republicans at the state level have been newly emboldened to launch broadsides against the landmark 1973 abortion rights ruling, now that conservative justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — who have telegraphed their intention to undermine or even overturn Roe — are seated on the Court.
Should any of these lawsuits wind up before the Court in the months and years to come — an absolute certainty, at this point — conservatives may finally realize their ultimate goal of controlling the bodies of women.
The far-right — particularly the religious right — has portrayed its steadfast opposition to safe, legal abortion as a matter of protecting the unborn. Its proponents are firm in their belief that life begins at conception and therefore abortion is akin to murder, and they have largely succeeded at getting the media and the general public to buy that narrative.
But for many of those arguing in favor of stripping pregnant people of their right to choose, the religious argument appears to be little more than a convenient justification that happens to neatly align with their political ideology. Because if the lives of the unborn were really the central focus of the mostly male lawmakers responsible for passing draconian abortion restrictions, they would prioritize those same lives once they actually enter the world. In reality, many Republican-backed policies are designed to inflict maximum punishment on expectant mothers and their newborn children.
The abortion rate in the United States has fallen dramatically over the last few decades. In 1984, the Centers for Disease Control, which compiles annual abortion statistics, found that there were 364 induced abortions per 1,000 live births. By 2015, that number was cut nearly in half.
Many factors can explain the decline. Some are well-intentioned (improved access to birth control, better sex education in schools), others less so (restrictive laws, threats and acts of violence directed towards abortion providers and patients). But there’s one thing that has not meaningfully changed in the intervening decades — the reasons why pregnant people in the United States seek abortions.
The Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research and policy organization dedicated to reproductive rights and health, commissioned an exhaustive study in 2004 to determine the factors at play when a woman decides to get an abortion. Its research, which updated a similar study done in the late 1980s, remains the most up-to-date study of its kind. Both times, researchers identified several key motivations for people who seek out an abortion. The two most common — “having a baby would dramatically change my life” and “I can’t afford a baby now” — were cited by nearly three out of every four participants.
As the 2004 survey and its 1987 predecessor make abundantly clear, an overwhelming majority of abortions are the result of economic hardship of some form or another. Of those who said they couldn’t afford a baby, 42% said it was because they were unmarried. More than a third of participants said a baby would interfere with their employment. Almost as many said they couldn’t afford a child because they were students, or planned to be.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because every one of these economic hardships — insufficient access to early childhood services, lack of protections in the workplace for new and expectant mothers, unaffordable education — are owed almost entirely to opposition by the same Republican lawmakers who demand mothers carry their pregnancies to term.
Despite broad, bipartisan support among voters for affordable, government-sponsored early childhood education, Republicans in Congress have largely dragged their feet on legislation that would address this very concern. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) first introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act in 2017, an ambitious proposal that would cap childcare expenses for low- and middle-income families and increase access to high quality pre-kindergarten care, all while increasing pay for childcare providers. It went nowhere in the Republican-controlled 115th Congress, and was reintroduced earlier this year by Murray in the Senate and a broad coalition of Democrats who now control the House.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who unveiled her own childcare proposal as part of her 2020 presidential campaign platform, goes even further. Her “universal child care” proposal would direct $70 billion towards expanding early childhood care, providing it for free to families earning below 200% of the federal poverty line.
Republicans, meanwhile, have taken their cues from the White House, which included a paltry $1 billion in funding in their 2020 budget proposal, which would largely go to states in the form of grants to expand privatized childcare.
How about other fundamental needs? The proportion of low-income women who seek an abortion has climbed significantly since the 1987 study, all while Republicans continue to underfund basic necessities like food stamps. Their latest attempt includes a provision to increase work requirements for single mothers between the ages of 18 and 59 in order to obtain any food assistance at all.
Then there’s the matter of household income. Progressives in Congress have been fighting for decades to close the wage gap between women and men, over the repeated objections of Republicans who deny such a gap even exists. Shortly after taking control of the House, Democrats passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would force businesses to provide valid justifications for existing wage disparities and punish those which fail to compensate their female employees equally. Out of 197 Republicans in the House, just seven voted in favor of the bill.
Pay discrimination aside, women still face numerous hurdles in the workplace that Republicans continue to defend. While it remains illegal under federal law to fire a woman for being pregnant — shocking news to the thousands of women each year who are let go for that very reason — there are still no federal laws on the books guaranteeing paid family leave. Many states have taken the matter into their own hands, but the United States remains one of the only countries in the world, and the only member of the G20, not to have paid family leave. Instead, women must rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees just 12 weeks of unpaid leave. And the law’s extensive list of stipulations means that less than 60% of people in the workforce are even covered by the FMLA.
Republicans in Congress, perhaps spooked by the public’s overwhelming support for a federal paid family leave program, have made half-hearted nods in the direction of new legislation, but the bills and proposals they have put forward are comically unpopular. Their plans would redirect money from employees’ social security benefits, meaning that workers are essentially still paying for their own leave and delaying retirement. Republicans couldn’t even gin up enough support in their own caucus to pass one such measure in the last Congress.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to fight for the FAMILY Act, a bill that has been introduced in every Congress since 2013. In February, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), another Democratic contender in the 2020 primary, helped reintroduce the bill, which would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave by levying a 0.4% fee on workers’ wages, split evenly between the employer and employee. Predictably, Republicans oppose the measure, though some have expressed interest in working across the aisle to find a compromise.
On and on it goes. Expectant mothers cited the cost of education as a top factor for seeking an abortion — Republicans oppose measures to provide free or affordable access to higher education, and have stripped away protections for students relying on loans. Expectant mothers worry about the possible health of their unborn child — Republicans want to strip away health care protections for those with preexisting medical conditions. On television or in town halls, conservative officials scream bloody murder about the sanctity of the unborn, while using their legislative power to impose hardships on newborns and their parents.
Even the far-right’s proposed “solutions” to abortion are simultaneously under siege by… the far right. Religious extremists who in the morning preach the value of adoption to expectant mothers who are considering an abortion, in the afternoon do everything in their power to prevent same-sex couples from adopting. And that’s not even considering access to contraception and public sex education, both of which have been demonized by conservatives despite having a marked impact on lowering the rate of unwanted pregnancies.
The hypocrisy of those pushing restrictive abortion bans isn’t lost on even some conservatives who consider themselves pro-life. David Frum, a columnist at The Atlantic, put it succinctly on Twitter.
Hypothesis: a $500/month per child mother’s allowance – not a tax credit, a check – would do more to reduce abortion than any law.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) May 15, 2019
Of course, there are many Americans who oppose abortion for reasons that are truly grounded in their interpretation of scripture. Some of them might even serve in Congress.
But until they demonstrate the same concern for human life that they do for an unviable fetus, Americans would be well-served to treat them for what they are: opportunists who just don’t like the idea of women and gender minorities controlling their own bodies.