Last week, former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gave a campus lecture at Catholic University of America during which she discussed how her faith informs her political views. Not surprisingly, at the end of her lecture Townsend was asked about her stance on abortion. She responded by saying that “when a Democrat gets elected, the abortion rates go down.” She attributes this to their safety-net policies: With higher taxes, there are more opportunities available for the poor, which gives pregnant women with little money hope for a brighter future for their children.
These arguments are frustrating for pro-lifers for several reasons. Even though there are plenty of studies that show that public-funding restrictions and parental-involvement laws reduce abortion rates, there is no body of peer-reviewed research that shows that increases in welfare spending are correlated with declines in the incidence of abortion. Even if such evidence existed, it would still be disheartening to see Catholic elected officials supporting legal abortion. (Townsend, over the course of her career, has been endorsed by both NARAL and EMILY’s List.)
Townsend and other members of the Catholic Left frequently tout the abortion-rate decline that coincided with Bill Clinton’s presidency. Their logic is puzzling. If anything, welfare policy became more conservative during the 1990s. In the early and mid 1990s, many states received waivers from the Department of Health and Human Services to strengthen work requirements for welfare recipients and pursue other reforms. Additionally, with the passage of welfare reform in 1996, states had greater ability to sanction welfare recipients who were not searching for jobs or complying with work-related requirements.
Interestingly, the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute indicates that the abortion rate fell during the George W. Bush administration. However, not one mainstream media outlet has reported on this fact, much less given President Bush any credit. Somehow I doubt this factoid will be included any of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s future talking points.
— Michael New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.