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Pro-Lifers Need a New Strategy

Abortion restrictions are accomplishing little. Supporting mothers and babies might do better.
November 16, 2022
Pro-Lifers Need a New Strategy
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What is the pro-life movement? I’ve always imagined it to be broader than just efforts to make abortion illegal. In the wake of the 2022 elections, in which voters rejected candidates whose abortion postures were perceived as extreme, those who care about the welfare of unborn children might want to rethink their focus.

Arguably, the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision has been a legal tangle. A number of states had adopted so-called “trigger laws” during the regnancy of Roe v. Wade, specifying that if and when Roe was overturned, abortion would be restricted in a variety of ways. Idaho’s law, for example, prohibited abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. Louisiana’s law did not permit exceptions in cases of rape or incest, but only for the life of the mother or “serious permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ of the pregnant woman.” Utah’s law contains an exception for “severe fetal abnormality.” Thirteen out of the 50 states have adopted near or total bans. Seventeen states have adopted laws permitting abortions—some throughout the pregnancy. In eight states, bans have been blocked by courts. Litigation continues and is likely to persist for years as courts grapple with cases that reveal the limitations and ambiguities of the laws. Would damage to the eyes or ears count as “serious permanent impairment of a life-sustaining organ” under Louisiana law? What is a “severe” fetal abnormality?

Wisconsin’s trigger law reinstated a law originally passed in 1849 and illustrates some of the vagueness that leaves physicians unsure of their legal jeopardy (none of the laws make mothers criminally liable, but many hold physicians accountable). In Ohio, a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion. Pro-lifers initially thought the story was invented because it seemed to fulfill the worst stereotypes of pro-choice advocates. Except it was true. Ohio’s law, like Louisiana’s, permitted abortion when a “medically diagnosed condition . . . so complicates the pregnancy of the woman as to directly or indirectly cause the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” It’s common knowledge that pregnancy is dangerous for very young girls, but under Ohio’s law, would being 10 qualify as a “medically diagnosed condition”? Would doctors be willing to risk their medical licenses or possible legal liability in such situations? Such are the agonizing decisions that will now be refereed by lawyers and judges.

Voters have demonstrated a clear preference for laws that permit abortion in the early stages. Kansas, widely perceived as a conservative state, led the way last August by rejecting a constitutional amendment that would have permitted the legislature to adopt strict limits. In the midterms, abortion restrictions were defeated across the board. The pro-choice side won every state referendum, even in purple states, and exit polls found that 63 percent of voters prefer that abortion be legal in all or most circumstances. Abortion was a huge motivator for Democratic voters, but not so much for Republican ones—thus (at least partially) accounting for the Democrats’ strong showing in a year of high inflation and dissatisfaction with the president.

It’s safe to say that the legal strategy of outlawing abortion won a huge victory with the Dobbs decision and now is facing a prolonged backlash at the hands of voters.

What can the pro-life movement realistically expect to achieve with the narrow focus on the law? Thirteen mostly low-density states have adopted abortion bans (for now). How many fewer abortions will there be in America as a result? The states with the highest numbers of abortions are mostly blue. The District of Columbia has the highest rate with 32.7 abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age. New York is second, followed by New Jersey and Maryland. California is also in the top ten, along with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware. Florida is the lone red state among the top ten, coming it at number five. Florida’s law, signed by Gov. Ron De Santis, restricts abortions after 15 weeks, but since 88 percent of abortions are performed during the first 12 weeks, the law will not reduce the overall number by much if at all. The bottom ten states for abortion are all red and most are sparsely populated: Wyoming, South Dakota, Kentucky, Idaho, and more like that. And, as you can surmise from the geography, most abortions are sought by black (38 percent) and Hispanic (21 percent) women. Whites account for 33 percent.

Surgical abortion was the only choice in 1973 when Roe was decided, but today the majority of abortions in America are medication abortions. A number of states have moved to ban abortifacients, but considering our national success rate at restricting cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin, such laws are going to be leaky at best. Presumably, women in states with abortion bans will turn more frequently to pills, and frankly, there is little the law can do about it.

While the rate of abortion has decreased dramatically since 1990, the percentage of poor or low-income women getting abortions has increased sharply. According to the Alan B. Guttmacher Institute, 75 percent of women terminating pregnancies in 2014 were either poor or low-income.

Their reasons for seeking abortions vary, but women often cite economic hardship among the chief motivators. As the Guttmacher Institute reports:

Among women who gave at least two reasons, the most common pairs of reasons were inability to afford a baby and interference with school or work; inability to afford a baby and fear of single motherhood or relationship problems; and inability to afford a baby and having completed childbearing or having other people dependent on them.

So the pro-life movement is, in essence, adding a nuisance factor for poor and minority women in red and purple states—many of them already mothers, forcing them either to travel for a surgical abortion (with the attendant costs of childcare and transportation) or to procure drugs illegally (also with attendant costs). As always, women with means in all states will not be terribly inconvenienced.

The accusation against the pro-life movement that I’ve always thought was unjust was that they cared little for actual mothers and babies and simply wanted to control women, or worse, to harm women. The blinkered legal strategy tends to give that accusation a whiff of plausibility. Why not concentrate on concrete reforms that can make a difference in women’s lives?

We do a lousy job of contraception in this country. We need a huge push to get contraceptives into the hands of all women who want them. Half of women with unintended pregnancies had not used birth control in the month they conceived. Many cite cost as a factor. A doctor’s appointment should not be necessary to obtain oral contraceptives. All of the major medical groups agree. So, let’s kickstart a campaign to permit the over-the-counter sale of birth control pills.

Every abortion is a tragedy and frankly, a moral failure. And while it’s unrealistic to use the law to forbid women to abort if that’s what they are determined to do, there are thousands of expectant mothers who wish there were an alternative. They need financial and moral support and we should provide it. Wouldn’t it be better to devote time and money to support groups for struggling moms than to limiting the exceptions to pregnancy termination in Louisiana? Every child should be welcomed in love. The pro-life movement should concentrate on helping more women to avoid unintended pregnancies, and ensuring that expectant mothers who really just need financial or practical or emotional support can find it.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].