Earlier this month, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote a piece for The American Conservative making the case that pro-lifers should focus their policy efforts on improving the economic circumstances of women facing crisis pregnancies. She specifically recommends a no-strings-attached cash allowance for mothers. On Tuesday, I had a Corner post expressing skepticism that such an allowance would reduce the abortion rate. Bruenig responded on her personal blog later that day. I appreciate the fact that she engaged my arguments in a thoughtful, serious, and diplomatic way. Such décor is often lacking among people who are debating sanctity-of-life issues.
I want to begin by stating that debates about the level of public support to offer mothers are complicated. This is certainly an issue where pro-lifers of good faith can disagree. We are trying to build a culture of life in the long term while protecting unborn children in the short term. Most of the time, these goals are consistent with one another. Yet there are times when this isn’t the case. The question of how to handle pregnant students is a problem that many private Christian schools have grappled with in the past. Punishing such students might make them more likely to choose abortion; accommodating them might undermine norms against premarital sex and create a culture where abortions happen more often.
Overall, I made two arguments in my Tuesday post. The first was that a child allowance would increase the number of single-parent households and undermine mores against premarital sex. In her response, Bruenig doubts this to be the case, and even if it were, it would do little to change sexual mores. She does not specify all the details of how her proposal would work, but I wonder if women would receive an increase in their allowance for each additional child they had. This would likely result in an increased number of children raised by single mothers and in a generally more promiscuous society.
I’m also unsure a child allowance would work quite the way Bruenig intends. It might encourage some women to get married, but discourage others. After all, women would have more financial means to raise children on their own. Welfare programs can create a culture of irresponsibility where recipients end up engaging in repeat behavior and depending more on the government than their own initiative. Such a culture of irresponsibility is inconsistent with a more conservative sexual culture that is needed to reduce the abortion rate. And there are usually negative implications for the children raised in such a culture.
All that aside, I have additional concerns that there will be a crowding-out effect. Often when the government takes a more active role in solving a particular problem, private endeavors recede. I would hate to see pregnancy resource centers lose out on donations because the government is taking on a more active role in caring for mothers. Such centers attempt to alleviate the economic pressures of women facing crisis pregnancies. They also do much more than that. Those centers with a religious orientation can minister to the spiritual needs of women, and many educate women about the health risks involved with a promiscuous lifestyle. Many also offer parenting classes. These are extremely valuable tasks that no welfare program can replicate.
Bruenig agrees with my second point that existing research finds little evidence of generous welfare benefits reducing the incidence of abortion. However, she cites Sweden as an example of a country that became more economically conservative while seeing its abortion rate increase. Sweden is an interesting case study, but there are other data points worth considering. First, welfare policy in the United States has become more conservative since the 1980s. In general, cash welfare benefits have not kept up with inflation. The welfare-reform bill that President Clinton signed in 1996 made it easier for states to sanction the benefits of recipients who were not participating in work or job training activities. Welfare caseloads declined significantly while the U.S. abortion rate continued to fall.
Additionally, even though the U.S. economy was in poor shape during the late 2000s, the abortion numbers did not increase the way some had anticipated. Others have argued that the abortion-rate decline stalled, but it certainly did not increase during this time. Maybe economic pressures are responsible for fewer abortions than Bruenig thinks.
I will say that I do agree with Bruenig that pro-lifers would do well to think critically and creatively about various efforts, both public and private, to assist women facing crisis pregnancies. After Texas governor Rick Perry signed HB2 last summer, a number of Texas abortion clinics closed because they could not comply with the new rules. This has received significant coverage from a variety of media outlets. As such, it would be both good policy and public relations for the pro-life movement to make a visible and public commitment of resources to assist women in Texas and other parts of the deep South. Such private efforts will certainly do more to build a culture of life than another impersonal government transfer program.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.