It’s Time for Pro-Lifers to Change the Culture on Abortion

Liberal states are seeking to codify protections for abortion if Roe is overturned. How about we focus on making the practice unnecessary?
February 1, 2019
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Abortion measures in two states that reduce barriers to late-term abortions have drawn righteous outrage from pro-lifers for provisions that would allow for abortions essentially until the moment of birth. The reactions to New York’s recently passed Reproductive Health Act and a now-tabled bill in Virginia are understandable, but abortion opponents should use that emotion constructively, as motivation toward the ultimate goal of eliminating abortion.

There’s only so much good that can come from being upset by raucous cheering in the New York Senate gallery or by the callous comments of Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran and “moderate” governor Ralph Northam. Conservatives need to pay attention to what else is in those laws, and keep an eye on the direction that states are moving on abortion. The New York law, for example, codifies protections for Roe v. Wade in the event that the Supreme Court overturns that landmark decision.

For his part, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t downplay the Roe aspect, even stating that “whatever happens in Washington, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.”

Other states may soon follow New York’s lead and enact their own legislation intended to protect access to abortion in the event the United States Supreme Court overturns Roe — thus showing the limits of the landmark ruling. Overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal at the federal level; it would simply return power to the states to enact their own laws regarding access to it. (There is an argument to be made as well that those on the left who foresee a Handmaid’s Tale-esque future are also overstating their case.)

So pro-lifers are not going to effect the change they want via the Supreme Court. Indeed, New York’s new legislation is so extreme that it permits the kinds of abortions that have been outlawed in nearly every other civilized country in the world — and the kinds of abortions that many pro-choicers previously argued didn’t or shouldn’t exist. And no law is going to eradicate the demand for — or existence of — abortion entirely in the United States. It is therefore not enough to change the laws. The pro-life movement must focus on changing the culture.

It simply is not possible to eliminate abortion by legislating it away. But we can reduce the number of abortions by providing sufficient resources and support, including comprehensive sex education, for women and families. And we can stop seeing the fight over abortion as “us versus them” and instead frame it as “us helping them” instead.

Many pro-life individuals and organizations are already doing so, though their efforts are often overshadowed, misrepresented, or simply less visible because they take place in local communities, far from the national stage. But perhaps it’s time to move overturning Roe or implementing restrictive abortion legislation to the bottom of the priorities list entirely.

That view is one espoused by organizations such as the New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization founded by Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa. Her organization promotes consistent life ethic with the goal of supporting women.

“Laws follow culture, and until our society understands the humanity of the unborn and the needs of women facing unplanned pregnancies, all of this legislation will be unenforceable,” Herdon-De La Rosa says.”That’s why our focus must be on making abortion unthinkable and unnecessary in the lives and hearts of women, rather than simply trying cut off or increase the supply through legislation. This is a demand issue and we must first address why women feel they need abortion to begin with.”  

That requires giving women enough support so that abortion doesn’t feel like their only or best option. This takes two different but equally important forms: Emotional and tangible support.

Women who choose life should not be ostracized, punished, or shamed. For example, after teenager Maddi Runkles admitted she was pregnant, her Christian high school refused to let her walk at graduation for violating school rules. What purpose does it serve to ostracize a young woman in a difficult situation after she chose life? Shouldn’t that value count for something? And how does this reaction influence the next girl with an unexpected pregnancy? Will she look at how others in her position were treated and decide abortion is the less embarrassing and less consequential solution?

Similarly, divisive and belligerent rhetoric, such as lumping together all those who support a woman’s right to choose as “murderers” or complicit in murder, is extremely damaging. It’s estimated nearly one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45; there is no way for us to know who among our coworkers, friends, or loved ones has considered or had an abortion.  Such rhetoric shuts down potentially productive discussions and impedes the possibility of finding effective solutions.

But pregnant women need more than emotional support. As Ramesh Ponnuru points out at National Review, a “2013 study of abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy indicated that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” Instead, the study says, the women are often single parents, or depressed, or caught in a cycle of domestic violence. Also,  2004 Guttmacher Institute survey of 1,209 abortion patients showed that “I can’t afford a baby now” was one of the two most common reasons the women chose abortion; 73 percent of the respondents cited it. And for women whose babies have health defects, the cost of necessary health services can seem overwhelming to impossible. Family planning services, career and job help, child care, and actually affordable health care can and do make a difference. Elected politicians should protect such services, some of which help to later ensure parents have the ability to earn a living to support their families rather than depending on welfare services. (And it’s worth mentioning that the U.S.’ maternal death rate is the worst in the developed world, but states could improve their rates by copying California’s practices.)

Furthermore, providing women with as much support as possible has the added benefit of neutralizing the accusation that pro-lifers only care up until the moment of birth and are unwilling to help struggling mothers and children.

Pregnancy is an extremely personal situation, and abortion can often be an incredibly difficult decision; many people see the pro-life movement as an unwanted intrusion into that. To ask for access into that decision-making requires a gentle, understanding, and compassionate touch. If we want women to choose life, we should not shame them when they do or eliminate the very programs that could help them to choose life. Neither actions are pro-life or pro-family, and they push struggling or desperate girls and women towards abortion rather than away from it.

The pro-life movement can benefit not only from helping women who become pregnant but also supporting ways to keep women from getting pregnant. Comprehensive sex education has helped to reduce the abortion rate to its lowest on record since 1971. And Republicans can tout their support for over-the-counter birth control pills as evidence that they want to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies and to give women more freedom over their own lives. A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that “increasing access to and use of contraception, including the most effective methods, can reduce unintended pregnancies and further reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States.” It is clearly better to prepare for the worst than hope for the best, and the decreasing teen pregnancy and decreasing abortion rates are both evidence of that.

Unfortunately, according to the Pew Research Center, “public support for legal abortion remains as high as it has been in two decades of polling” — despite all the scientific evidence on the side of the pro-life movement. This demonstrates the importance of changing minds and supporting women rather than focusing on legislation.

After New York passed its act, Cuomo tweeted the One World Trade Center’s spire was lit in pink to “celebrate,” as if third-trimester abortions were empowering or worth celebrating. What will be empowering is when women no longer feel as though their only option is abortion; what will be worth celebrating is when our society recognizes that a baby in the womb is a human being with his or her own DNA, own heartbeat, and own bodily autonomy.

Correction, March 5: This article originally claimed incorrectly that more babies were aborted than born in the state of New York. The passage has been removed.

Sarah Quinlan

Sarah Quinlan is a columnist at Arc Digital and a former staffer at RedState. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity.