The longer I’ve been engaged in the quest to eliminate abortion from the United States of America, the more I’ve become convinced that the core challenge rests not on the supply side—the availability of legal abortion access—but rather on the demand side. In other words, a nation or state that wants legal abortion will have legal abortion. And even in a nation or state that severely restricts abortion access, women who want abortion will find a way.
In fact, I’d argue that the best explanation for the long-term decline in the abortion rate is primarily decreased demand. The available data indicates that America’s abortion rate is now lower than it was when Roe was decided, when abortion was illegal in most American states. If you read this newsletter, you’ve seen this chart before. It’s important to show it again:
Though there is evidence that the abortion rate increased slightly in 2018 (reporting on abortion rates tends to take time), the long-term trend is deeply encouraging. After an initial and expected surge in abortion rates after Roe legalized abortion from coast-to-coast, the rate has declined through every single American presidency, pro-life and pro-choice.
The bottom line is clear—there is no reason for pro-life Americans to simply presume this forty-year positive trend will change and every reason to believe that the most effective forms of pro-life engagement can and will continue, even under a Biden presidency.
There remains no barrier for pro-life Americans to love their neighbor and directly support mothers and children who face dire need. There is even an opportunity to enact legislation that can further ease the fears of young mothers and increase their confidence that they can raise and support a child.
In the days and weeks since Biden’s election, I’ve heard a number of Christians express genuine anguish about the prospects for defending life during the Biden administration. Make no mistake, there is cause for deep concern about the administration’s policies. Like Democratic presidents before him, he has reversed Ronald Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy” that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. aid from providing abortion services or abortion counseling.
Biden has also reversed his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars the Medicaid program from funding abortions. Repealing the Hyde Amendment would represent the first truly substantial change in federal abortion law in a generation and could result in tens of thousands of additional abortions per year.
While reinstating the Mexico City Policy will likely have to await the next GOP president, pro-life Americans can preserve the Hyde Amendment now. In fact, Democratic efforts to repeal the Hyde Amendment suffered a blow when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin told my friends at National Review that repeal would be “foolish”, thus likely preserving the amendment through at least one more election cycle.
But the purpose of this newsletter isn’t just to describe what a pro-life American should oppose during the Biden Administration. It’s also to highlight what a pro-life American can support. To understand what to support, it’s worth remembering a remarkable Notre Dame study that took a deep dive into the way in which Americans truly understand abortion.
The study wasn’t a simple poll that asked respondents’ opinions on a variety of abortion-related policies. Instead, researchers conducted in-depth interviews of a representative sample of more than 200 Americans. The researchers did not disclose that abortion was the subject of the interviews when they recruited participants.
I’d urge you to read the entire report from start to finish, but the results truly help us understand not just why abortion remains legal, but why women abort, and why the abortion rate declines.
The short answer is that large majorities do not wish to ban abortion, that the circumstances (including the financial circumstances) surrounding a pregnancy truly matter, and that even pro-choice respondents do not view abortion as a “desirable good.”
In other words, though many Americans don’t want to ban abortions, they also don’t want to have abortions. Here’s key language from the report:
None of the Americans we interviewed talked about abortion as a desirable good. Views range in terms of abortion’s preferred availability, justification, or need, but Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event, or something they want more of. From restrictive to ambivalent to permissive, we instead heard about the desire to prevent, reduce, and eliminate potentially difficult or unexpected circumstances that predicate abortion decisions (whether of relationships, failed contraception, lack of education, financial hardship, or the like). Even those most supportive of abortion’s legality nonetheless talk about it as “hard,” “serious,” not “happy,” or benign at best. Stories from those who have had abortions are likewise harrowing, even when the person telling it retains a commitment to abortion’s availability.
Another segment of the report detailed how Americans think through questions of circumstances and support:
Americans focus much of their attention on abortion’s preconditions, alternatives, and aftereffects. We heard contemplations such as, What was the nature of the relationship between conceiving partners? Was it consensual? How did they approach pregnancy prevention, if at all? Was there sufficient knowledge about potential outcomes? What kinds of support (financial, relational) are available to people facing unplanned pregnancies? What are the stages of prenatal development? What health situations would put a mother or baby at risk? What does it take to raise a child (financially, parentally)? What impact does having a child have on professional aspirations, or on reputation, or on permanent ties between conceiving partners? What roles do (or can) men and women play in parenthood? How accessible is a choice like adoption? What are the conditions of children in foster care? This list of questions continues. The point here is that opinions on myriad social issues and corollary personal decisions frame attitudes well beyond the procedural “yes/no” or “right/wrong” of an abortion decision.
For pro-life Americans, here’s some good news—through personal intervention, support for church ministries, support for crisis pregnancy centers, and support for effective public policy, you can directly impact most of the concerns outlined above.
I’ve written before to urge pro-life Americans to redouble their personal commitment to supporting moms and babies. No presidential administration can stop you from volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. You can adopt. You can foster parent. You can give money to those working on the front lines to love mothers and children and to save lives. These personal interventions are absolutely vital to preserving life in a nation that increasingly dislikes abortion but still refuses to ban abortion.
But let’s also talk policy. Let’s talk Mitt Romney. Last week the Utah senator proposed transforming the child tax credit into a child tax allowance that could transform the financial condition of many of America’s poorest families. Under the Romney proposal, families would receive $4,200 per year, per child (up to age six) and $3,000 per year, per child (between ages 6 and 17). Families would receive monthly payments, and the payments would begin four months prior to the child’s due date.
(Romney proposes paying for the tax allowance in part by repealing the state and local tax deduction. The allowance would also phase out at the highest income levels.)
My friends Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru have written in support of the plan, mainly on the grounds that it will make it easier—in Ramesh’s words—“for people to start and expand their families.” Ross also noted that it was “softly pro-life.”
It’s always perilous to predict whether a government policy not directly aimed at preventing abortion will have a pro-life effect, but ponder these projections from the Niskanen Center:
Put in plain English, the numbers above mean that “the Romney child allowance would reduce U.S. child poverty by roughly one third, and deep child poverty by half.”
Given that we know financial concerns factor into the abortion decision, it strikes me that the Romney proposal provides a promising vehicle for using public policy to promote life even in a pro-choice administration. And lest you think Romney’s proposal is dead on arrival, here’s a tweet from Biden’s chief of staff:
Writing in New York magazine, Eric Levitz declared Romney’s child allowance plan “better than Biden’s.” Vox’s Dylan Matthews also argued that the Romney plan “has some advantages” over the Biden plan and noted that it’s been praised by some rather surprising left-wing voices.
I’ve long been deeply suspicious of arguments from the left that if pro-life Americans “truly” cared about abortion that they’d support (mainly left-wing) social welfare programs aimed at improving the lives and health of America’s most vulnerable citizens. I’ve been suspicious not because I disagree that increased financial security or health security can ease concerns of expectant mothers but because I’m often dubious the proposed government programs will work as advertised.
In this case, however, I’m more convinced. Yes, there are intelligent critiques of the plan, but the direct and substantial aid to even expectant mothers persuades me that Romney’s plan could make a difference. It could not only decrease poverty and increase childbearing (worthy goals all their own), it could very well give a worried mom the comfort she needs to make the choice she likely wants to make—to keep her child in spite of her fears.
This week, I had the privilege of teaching a short course on Christianity and politics at Covenant College, a beautiful Christian college perched atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Many of the students were passionate about defending the unborn and also pessimistic about the ability of politics to bring about profound change.
To those students, my message was simple. I told them about the graph above and the generations-long plunge in the abortion rate, regardless of who wielded power. Politics do matter, certainly, but there’s a deeper truth. Christians don’t need to win Senate races to love their neighbors. They don’t need to hold the White House to stand with women in need. And when you’re willing to commit to creative and cooperative methods of forming and sustaining thriving families, you’ll find that there are many ways of cherishing and preserving our most vulnerable American lives.
One more thing …
Last week Sean Illing at Vox interviewed me to explore why I’d argued in this newsletter that this was a “dangerous time for American Christianity.” I like Sean a great deal, and I enjoyed our conversation. Here’s a key excerpt:
Sean Illing: I had a conversation last year with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, and she argues that evangelical Christianity has been steadily subsumed by popular culture and has turned, increasingly, into a more masculine, more militant, and more nationalistic political religion. Does that reading seem correct to you?
David French: I’d say that there is a perverted version of masculinity that is common in Southern evangelical circles that rendered the church vulnerable to the Trumpian influence. I’ve seen that with my own eyes. There’s a deep-seated insecurity that exists about masculinity in the church for lots of interesting reasons, some of them related to the way the secular culture has cast a lot of aspersions on traditional masculinity as being “problematic.”
In many strands of evangelical Christianity, there’s a real struggle to articulate and live out a biblical masculinity that is not too influenced by a secular culture that either wrongly denigrates toughness or wrongly elevates toughness. I think that that’s led to an awful lot of confusion.
One of the things that has been so bizarre to me has been this equation of Donald Trump with virtuous masculinity. We don’t need to go into all of the details, but this is a man who evaded military service, who has serially cheated on wives, who is terribly out of shape, is so cowardly in a lot of his personal interactions, that he delegates to others the task of firing people. There’s so much that if you were going to map out who is the archetype of the masculine leader prior to Trump, he would be the opposite of that.
I expected the interview would generate some blowback, but I must confess that I did not expect this response, from a Newsmax guest. Huge if true, as they say:
One last thing …
As I’ve said before, I read all your emails even if I can’t respond to as many as I’d like. And among my favorite are the music suggestions. This week two of them stood out. This is just beautiful. It’s by New Zealand’s Holly Arrowsmith:
My Catholic readers have stood and shouted with one voice, “Bring us the Hillbilly Thomists!” Your wish is my command: