For the first time in decades, the pro-life movement is allowing itself to dream of a post-Roe world. With the arguments during the Supreme Court hearing of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Whole Health going as well as can be expected for the anti-abortion movement, both pro-life activists and abortion advocates are increasingly convinced that sometime next year, Roe will finally die, predeceased by 60 million aborted American children. If that comes to pass, the primary goal of a powerful and vibrant political movement will be achieved—and discussion is turning to what comes next.
Plans for how to ensure that women and children receive the support that they need in a restrictive abortion regime have been in the works for some time. Last year, Emma Green penned an article for the Atlantic titled “The Anti-Abortion-Rights Movement Prepares to Build a Post-Roe World,” detailing some of the pro-life organizations and financial backers laying the groundwork. Meanwhile, as Politico reported in an essay titled “‘A post-Roe strategy’: The next phase of the abortion fight has already begun,” other groups such as Students for Life of America and Americans United for Life are preparing to lobby state legislatures to ensure that abortion bans sail through after Roe falls.
Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia, has a few ideas of his own. Author of the seminal history Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press), Williams’ most recent book, The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship, came out earlier this year. In a lengthy chapter on abortion, Williams details the history of how abortion went from an issue that both many liberals and conservatives cared deeply about to an almost exclusively partisan one. Even the Kennedy family was once split on abortion—and if Sargent and Eunice Shriver had been successful in their attempt ensure that pro-lifers were welcome in the Democratic Party, American politics might look very different.
A post-Roe world will surely pose many challenges but may also give unprecedented opportunities for political realignment. Williams’ view of the pro-life movement’s alliance with the GOP is nuanced. On one hand, it has obviously paid off. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade next year—which Williams thinks likely—it will be the successful conclusion to a decades-long strategy based on electing Republicans in exchange for judicial appointments. In the long term, however, the marriage of pro-family social conservatives to libertarians and big business has also had significant drawbacks.
“There is a close relationship between abortion and poverty,” Williams told me. “Fifty percent of women who obtain abortions in the United States today are living below the poverty line, and an additional 25 percent are considered lower-income, with annual earnings that are just barely above the poverty level. The majority are already mothers of at least one child. One of the most common reasons they give for an abortion is that they fear they will not be able to care for an additional child.”
As Williams detailed in Defenders of the Unborn, many politically progressive pro-lifers in the early 1970s wanted to reduce the abortion rate by creating a social safety net for lower-income women experiencing crisis pregnancies. “This strategy would still make sense today, because the correlation between poverty and abortion is even stronger than it was half a century ago,” Williams noted. Indeed, in most places it costs thousands of dollars to give birth—and usually mere hundreds to have an abortion. From a pro-life perspective, the financial pressures and incentives run in precisely the wrong direction.
While there are some states seeking to remedy this—Texas has a $100 million abortion alternatives fund, for example—other states have terrible records. Mississippi, Williams pointed out, has some of the strongest restrictions on abortion but “some of the stingiest poverty relief programs and has refused to expand Medicaid coverage to reach women whose annual incomes fall between 100 and 138 percent of the poverty line. A woman who is caring for two children and is earning only $25,000 a year would not qualify for Medicaid coverage in Mississippi.”
There is compelling data to suggest that these factors play into abortion decisions. “In the last thirty years, the annual number of abortions obtained by middle-income women has dropped by 67 percent, but the annual number of abortions obtained by women in poverty has not fallen at all,” Williams pointed out. “If pro-lifers really want to reduce the abortion rate, they will have to figure out why poor women have abortions and then find a way to address their real needs.”
The question is: can the abortion rate be reduced by policies now considered—in the American political milieu, anyhow—liberal? Williams and a number of other pro-life scholars believe that this is the case. Lower-income Americans need, first and foremost, expanded healthcare coverage, along with better wages and potentially tuition assistance. (As I discussed with Family Minister Katalin Novak here at TAC, Hungary has been doing precisely that for several years now—and the abortion rate has been dropping steadily.)
“In a post-Roe world, it will be easy for conservative state legislatures to pass restrictions on abortion, but it will be much harder to allocate resources to expand healthcare coverage or to provide assistance for children with special needs, such as Down syndrome,” Williams told me. “To ensure that women and their children have the assistance they need, pro-lifers may need to ally with politicians whom they have not traditionally seen as friends—that is, progressive politicians who may be pro-choice but who will be more likely than conservative Republicans to favor expansions in healthcare assistance and the social safety net.”
Of course, a possible and much-discussed alternative is an evolved GOP rooted in a coalition between social conservatives and the working class—and unharnessed from Big Business. As I discussed in TAC last year with pro-life scholars Robert P. George and Charles Camosy, the Trump years have revealed the possibility of a realignment, and with big business going woke and turning on socially conservative Americans (threatening states that pass pro-life laws with boycotts, for example) it is past time that the GOP coalition be reconsidered. Some GOP stars—Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley—and even establishment animals like Mitt Romney (the Family Security Act) have realized that a new approach to family support is necessary.
“If a significant number of abortions—perhaps even the majority of abortions—are at least partly the result of lower-income women’s fear that they will not be able to care for an additional child, any policy that empowers single, low-income women to feel economically secure and provide for their children would likely have a significant effect in lowering the abortion rate,” Williams said. In fact, Catholic leaders have long urged policies such as the “living wage,” and American Protestants also have a long tradition of advocating family-oriented economic policies.
Many American social conservatives have opposed government assistance based on a suspicion of big government and a concern that such policies could incentivize out-of-wedlock births. Williams disagrees.
“Most critics of ‘big government’ are not consistent in their criticism,” he told me. “Most, for example, do not oppose government-subsidized interstate highways or government-provided unemployment insurance. Nor are they uniformly critical of the government’s health insurance for senior citizens (Medicare) or the government’s insurance program for individual bank accounts (the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). In calling for expanded healthcare for the poor and increases in minimum wage, I am merely asking that a government that is already subsidizing many amenities for the middle class also give the working poor the assistance they need to ensure that after they work 40 or more hours per week, they will have enough to feed, clothe, and provide for their children.”
Williams agrees that we “should avoid incentivizing out-of-wedlock births,” but argues that the policies he believes most necessary, such as expanded medical coverage for the poor, “are not policies that reward women for having children out of wedlock or that would incentivize them to avoid marriage. Rather, they are policies that will empower them to make the choice to preserve life and care for their children—and that may ultimately give them the economic security that will make it easier for them to get married at some point.”
As far as Williams is concerned, there is a biblical mandate for this as well as political practicality. “Under the Mosaic covenant in the Old Testament, the poor were guaranteed certain rights, including the right to harvest grain from the edges of neighbors’ fields. In applying the principle behind this teaching to our contemporary society, I think that we could argue that policies that give the working poor who are struggling the tools they need to provide for their children are fully in keeping with the principles of respect for human dignity and concern for our neighbors.”
With the potential for realignment revealed by the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the real possibility of a post-Roe world, the growing recognition among both GOP politicians and movement conservatives (led by Yoram Hazony of the Edmund Burke Foundation) that libertarianism and free market absolutism are not the be-all answers to a healthy society, the time is right for this discussion. How do we ensure that preborn children are protected in the womb while also making abortion fundamentally unnecessary? How do we ensure that the cost of childbirth is not prohibitive? As the pro-life movement enters a new era, this is a question that deserves careful consideration.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.