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What About the ‘Root Causes’ of Abortion?

Is it plausible that candidates who support legal abortion are actually more "pro-life" because they favor welfare programs that reduce abortions?

Trent Horn

Faith, Abortion, and Voting, Part 5

In this series leading up to Election Day, we will explain why abortion is the most serious and urgent social issue of our time and what this means for Catholic voters. Are we simply free to vote for whatever candidate we prefer, for any reason that’s in our conscience? Or does our right to vote come with objective moral responsibilities that we must consider before casting our ballot?

In the previous part of this series, we looked at the very narrow conditions in which it might be possible for a Catholic to vote for a pro-abortion candidate—as well as all the many conditions in which it is not. In this final installment, we examine the oft-heard claim that proponents of legal abortion can actually be more “pro-life” than opponents, as long as they support policies designed to make abortion “rare.”

If you want to get rid of abortion, should you vote for a candidate committed to keeping it legal? It would seem like the obvious answer is “No.” But some people argue that, even if abortion is the preeminent social issue of our time, Catholics could have a proportionate reason to vote for a pro-choice (or what we would more properly call a pro-abortion) candidate if they think his policies will reduce abortion by making it unnecessary instead of illegal.

The argument goes like this: pro-lifers have spent nearly fifty years trying to outlaw abortion and have failed. Maybe it would be better, they say, to support politicians and policies that try make abortion not illegal but less desirable—by reducing its “root causes.” For example, they say, generous social welfare policies will incentivize poor mothers not to abort their unborn children and do more to save babies than any anti-abortion law.

Here’s what’s wrong with this argument.

First, over those fifty years, pro-life advocates in the United States have succeeded in reducing the number of abortions that occur and in giving the unborn some legal protections. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, formerly the research arm of Planned Parenthood, abortion rates have steadily declined ever since the 1980s—during administrations that supported legal abortion and those that opposed it.

On the legislative side, the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortion is now illegal, federal funds are not used to pay for abortions in hospitals, and federally appointed judges have upheld state laws putting restrictions on abortion. As the Washington Post has noted, states with more pro-life people tend to have more legal restrictions on abortion. And those restrictions save lives.

Sociologist Michael New has shown that even modest abortion restrictions, like waiting periods and informed consent laws, lead to a reduction in abortion rates. And those laws are a direct result of electing pro-life politicians.

Second, the evidence for whether economic improvement reduces abortion rates by itself is at best inconclusive. For example, a 2015 study found that women in extreme poverty are four times less likely to have an abortion than those in the lower middle class. Also, abortion rates have steadily declined even during economic downturns.

Moreover, if improved economic conditions reduced abortion rates, we would expect that the poorest states in the U.S. would have the highest abortion rates and the wealthiest states would have the lowest. But the highest rates are found in wealthier places such as Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia (whose rate is more than twice the national average). Meanwhile, the lowest abortion rates are found in poorer states such as Wyoming, South Dakota, and Mississippi. What do these states with low abortion rates have in common? They have laws that restrict access to abortion and discourage the operation of abortion clinics.

Finally, abortion is not like an incurable disease—something we just want to reduce the severity of. It is a violent evil that must be fought no matter what. We can’t always guarantee that politicians we elect will fulfill their promises to protect the unborn, but we can use our vote to hold all candidates accountable for how they respond to the preeminent social-justice issue of our age.

Regardless of the victories and setbacks the pro-life movement experiences, nothing can erase the moral duty we have to restore the legal right to life for unborn children. Just as our politicians’ failure to eradicate poverty doesn’t mean we should stop trying to help the poor, their failure to completely outlaw abortion up to now does not mean we should abandon the children who need us to be their voice.

Indeed, although our vote is most powerful when it is joined with thousands of others, our voice can be powerful on its own. It can help the friend who is considering abortion reject what would be the worst decision of her life. It can help the relative who is post-abortive find peace and healing in God’s grace. And it can empower others to continue to fight for the cause of life.


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