Hard Questions: Regressive Abortion Restrictions

How do we defend the child without laying a disproportionate burden on the most vulnerable mothers?

This newsletter has almost doubled in size since the first edition! I’ll send out highlights soon from your recommendations of models of feminism that you admire. In the meantime, please feel free to email me your requests for what you want from this newsletter and how I can help lift up your projects or needs.

Abortion policy and a feminism of interdependence

I was tempted to save this discussion for a later newsletter, but, when I put out an initial call for signups for this newsletter, so many of you listed abortion when I asked “What’s your biggest source of tension with the mainstream feminist movement

There were plenty of women who objected to the mainstream feminism movement’s growing extremism on abortion. “Safe, legal, and rare” acknowledges that something has gone wrong if abortion is a woman’s best choice. “Abortion on demand and without apology” makes no such concession. (And it can make women feel like bad feminists if they grieve their abortions—May Cause Love is a memoir by a pro-choice woman grappling with this bind).

Others of you spoke about the gap between the way advocacy for abortion seems to contradict other efforts to push back against a world that is hostile to women, especially poor women. It can feel like mainstream feminism accepts the premise that women and children are stuck in a zero-sum game. Acknowledging the humanity of babies is presumed to threaten women. Several comments focused on what it would take to make more space for women and their children.

One 32-year-old married woman wrote that her issue was:

Insistence on abortion and birth control and on adapting to a man’s corporate world rather than changing it to a more family friendly environment

A 25-year-old married woman agreed, saying:

In general: that a woman’s body is viewed as a source of oppression that a woman must overcome. In more specific waves of mainstream feminism (i.e. “lean in” feminism): the enthusiasm toward capitalism and the accumulation of wealth, and a blindness toward the poor and marginalized

It can be hard to advocate for women and children at the same time, when our culture genuinely puts a heavy burden on parents, even parents who have planned for a child. I’d like to hear from you about what forms of pro-life advocacy and laws you’ve seen that demonstrate a preferential option for the poor.

A baby, just at the end of the first trimester, kicking.

Limiting abortion… but just for poor women

One thing that’s stood out to me is how much the struggles over abortion access are fights about access for the most vulnerable women, while other women can buy their way around legal barriers.

In First Things, Daniel K. Williams offers “A Warning to the Pro-Life Movement” as litigation has increasingly focused on narrowing abortion access while trying to argue that the limits don’t represent an “undue burden.”

Sometime in the 1980s, the movement’s lawyers lost hope of ever passing sweeping protections of human life, and they shifted their strategy toward regulations designed to restrict abortion access. They gained a few victories with this strategy, but they forfeited the rhetorical high ground. By focusing narrowly on access, the pro-life movement lost its appeal to a generation of Hispanic and African-American women who, according to public opinion surveys, are personally opposed to abortion. Pro-lifers may need to insist anew that their movement is not merely an effort to make abortions more difficult to obtain but is instead a human rights campaign to protect all human life, including the lives of the unborn and women facing crisis pregnancies.

Peter Blair made a similar point in his pro-life newsletter The Pelican, focusing specifically on laws like those under scrutiny in SCOTUS cases Whole Women’s Health or June. These cases turned on whether laws requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital created an undue burden. The more likely the law was to close clinics, the less chance it had of being upheld.

This defense… sees pro-lifers who wish to restrict abortion arguing that this law can be allowed to stand in part because it does not restrict abortion providers. As I noted in a previous edition, when I compared the admitting privileges laws disfavorably to the laws passed in Alabama and Georgia, this situation gives an impression of transparently ulterior motives, a sense that pro-lifers are arguing laws like this won’t necessarily close down clinics even while passing them with a hope that they will.

Reducing abortion and abortion access at the margin means reducing it primarily for marginalized women. All laws face this challenge to an extent (think of the way richer people buy their way into tax loopholes), but it’s worth working to mitigate.

The law is a tutor, and even laws in defense of the vulnerable carry a second, more sinister lesson if they only apply to those who can’t afford to evade them.

Which abortion laws treat rich and poor alike?

I see a better approach in Indiana’s attempt to ban eugenic abortions. The law would have banned abortions chosen on the basis of the child’s gender, or as a rejection of children with Down Syndrome. This approach is more obviously rooted in the rights of the child and wouldn’t have be as regressive in implementation. (It was blocked at the appellate level, and SCOTUS declined to take it up).

Heartbeat laws have a much broader reach, and, like Indiana’s law, are focused on the reality of the child in danger, not on stacking up hoops for the family considering abortion to jump through.

Finally, Hope Story is an organization that introduces parents who have just received an in-utero diagnosis of Down Syndrome with families who are parenting a child with Down Syndrome. Hope Story doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges that a family may encounter, but they put a face on a diagnosis. They also reach out to doctors to try to help them find hope. At present, some doctors aggressively steer patients toward abortion, even angrily rebuking parents who want to meet their child.

Your Recommendations…

Are there pro-life organizations, laws, or individuals you admire for advocating for all children?

How do they make sure that their efforts don’t primarily affect only the poorest or most marginalized mothers?

Ideally, advocating for disadvantaged mothers and for their children can be part of the same work. I’d love to hear your recommendations for groups or laws that do this well.

Please be patient with each other in the comments—I know it’s hard to debate the nuances of different approaches when the stakes are high.