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A ‘New Movement’ Makes Old Mistakes

Trent Horn

Since the forty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade last month, several people have asked me about something called the “New Pro-Life Movement” (NPLM).

According to the group’s Facebook page:

We believe the methods of the mainstream pro-life movement have largely failed to address the issue properly. . . . We believe that the most effective means of reducing, and potentially eradicating, abortion comes through lessening the demand rather than the supply. On a socially applicable level, this includes greater access to healthcare, pre and post-natal care, mandatory paid leave, job protection, equal wages, sexual education, and stronger comprehensive support systems.

Although it claims to be new, this approach to abortion is well worn. Twenty years ago, Paul Swope published an article in First Things claiming that “the pro-life movement must show that abortion is actually not in a woman’s own self-interest.” 

Swope and advocates like him believe we should not focus the conversation on what abortion does to the child but on what we can do to make “choosing life” easier for abortion-minded women.

But there are two problems with these kinds of arguments.

The poverty paradigm is wrong

According to the NPLM thesis, the reason women choose to have abortions is that they are in economically desperate situations. Its website claims that it is “not realistic” to expect these women not to choose abortion unless they are offered (state-sponsored) entitlements like free childcare and guaranteed employment.

It’s true that the majority of women who choose abortion have incomes near the poverty line and that they often cite economic reasons to justify their abortions. But it does not seem to be true that greater income will make a woman less likely to choose abortion. A 2015 study from the Brookings Institute found that pregnant single women who make $11,670 per year abort 8.6 percent of the time, whereas single women who make $47,000 a year or more abort 32 percent.

Let that sink in: women in extreme poverty are four times less likely to have an abortion than women with four times the income.

Moreover, if the NPLM thesis were true, we would expect that the most impoverished states in the U.S. would have the highest abortion rates and the wealthiest states would have the lowest abortion rates. But the highest rates are found in states like Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia (whose rate is more than twice the national average). New Jersey and Washington, D.C., are the wealthiest parts of the country, with Maryland coming in third place.

The lowest abortion rates are found in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Mississippi. The first two states are roughly in the upper half of the country’s wealth, but Mississippi is the poorest state in the entire country—yet it has one of the country’s lowest abortion rates.

So what do these three states with low abortion rates have in common? They each have only one to two abortion facilities, compared with the forty-one facilities in Maryland, seventy-nine in New Jersey, and a whopping 218 in New York.

The critique of the “Old Pro-life Movement” is wrong

NPLM advocates often claim that because pro-lifers have failed to make abortion generally illegal, the “old strategy” hasn’t worked, and their new strategy should be used instead. But if the goal is, for the time being, reducing abortion rates and restoring some legal protection for the unborn, then it has worked in some places.

According to The Washington Post, “states with more people who oppose abortion rights tend to have lower abortion rates.” Low abortion rates in states like South Dakota are due in part to public demonstrations at abortion facilities, education campaigns, and pro-life legislation mandating informed-consent laws and waiting periods. What should be common sense is borne out by statistics: in places with few abortion facilities and many pro-life advocates, there are fewer abortions.

To cite another example: Wyoming and Vermont have similar populations and household incomes, but whereas Vermont has six abortion facilities, Wyoming has only one. In 2014, 120 abortions were committed in Wyoming but 1,400—more than ten times as many—in Vermont. This confirms Michael New’s research in the 2011 issue of State Politics and Policy, which showed that “abortion restrictions [like waiting periods and informed consent laws] are correlated with reductions in the incidence of abortion.”

Also consider this: impoverished women rarely kill their newborns in order to resolve their financial problems. The only thing that explains why the rich choose abortion more than the poor and why the poor do not choose infanticide (even when it’s more feasible than abortion) is because abortion is not merely a social problem related to poverty. Instead, abortion is the moral problem of failing to recognize the wrongness of killing unborn children and the legal problem of those children not having their right to life protected by law.

The legal problem contributes to the moral problem because the law educates people about what is right and wrong. Since abortion is legal, many women and their partners conclude, “Well, it couldn’t be that bad.” However, if abortion were illegal, then impoverished women would generally not choose it—just as they generally don’t rob banks. Even NPLM advocates admit that the law is capable of changing minds and behaviors because they believe in using legislation “to cut off supply” to other things they believe are offenses against human life.

According to the NPLM’s 11 Pillars, pro-lifers should strive to outlaw the death penalty, mandate government control of healthcare, oppose legislation that “reduces wages, cuts benefits, or restricts labor rights,” and outlaw various types of gun ownership. In these cases, NPLM advocates don’t say we should merely “reduce the demand” for the death penalty and gun ownership by supporting legislation that, for example, increases police presence in crime-ridden communities. Instead, they believe that government should outlaw what they see as a threat to human life.

But nowhere in these “pillars” does the NPLM explicitly support even modest legal restrictions to abortion—restrictions that have been proven to save lives. A 2017 article by one of the group’s founders does profess support for anti-abortion legislation that “doesn’t come with intersectional injustices attached,” a point reiterated by the same author earlier this month. Nonetheless, the NPLM’s official statement of principles is vocal on reducing demand and silent—other than to express skepticism—on reducing supply.

History repeats itself

The strategy of trying to reduce abortion by merely decreasing demand for it is similar to the failed nineteenth-century “free produce” strategy for ending slavery. This didn’t involve the use of super-discounted tomatoes but rather the promotion of non-slave or “free labor” over slave labor. Free-produce advocates believed that the best way to reduce the demand for slaves was to make the products of non-slave workers (“free produce”) more attractive to the public.

However, the movement failed to gain traction because goods produced with slave labor were always cheaper and usually of higher quality than goods produced with non-slave labor. Even prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison criticized the free-produce movement as a distraction from the movement’s larger goal of ending slavery. According to the encyclopedia World of a Slave:

[Garrison] contended that slaveholders were not moved primarily by economic calculus, but rather by the desire to dominate other humans by holding them as slaves; hence, boycotting slave-made goods was unlikely to weaken slavery. . . . Most white abolitionists shared Garrison’s skepticism, and by the 1840s, the free produce movement was in retreat (237).

People don’t oppose slavery today because it leads to inferior goods and services. They oppose slavery because they recognize it is a moral abomination, and the same must be done with abortion.

It’s admirable and necessary to provide support for women with unintended pregnancies, but this cannot be our only response to abortion. Many pregnant women who have access to financial and social support still choose abortion because it can give them what pro-life advocates can’t: the opportunity not to be pregnant and not to worry about caring for a baby.

In order to make slavery illegal, abolitionists didn’t have to make it unnecessary, they had to make it unthinkable. The same is true for modern abortion-abolitionists. Men and women who face unintended pregnancies will not “choose life” unless they fear abortion more than giving birth to a child. This means that pro-lifers must not take the focus off what abortion does to the unborn as they continue to provide resources to men and women who face unintended pregnancies.

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