After reading the abortion-debate staple “The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion,” which recounts interviews with abortion providers detailing the many abortions of erstwhile pro-life women, one can come to a couple of different conclusions. The first is the one the essay is usually advanced to insinuate: that pro-life women are hypocritical, tyrannical, morally defective. The second is the one it actually proves: there are women out there having abortions despite being ideologically committed to not having them, or who at least wouldn’t have them, were circumstances different.
This shouldn’t really induce much surprise; polling usually demonstrates murkier attitudes toward abortion than the public discourse tends to allow, with one 2010 Pew Forum poll demonstrating that about 50 percent of women find abortion morally wrong, and 12 percent consider it hazy depending on circumstances. Another shows that Millennials are less sanguine about the legality of abortion in all or most cases than our Gen X predecessors. Again and again, cases seem to be of greater import to a sizable chunk of Americans than our political arguments give them credit for.
So why do women have abortions? There is often a strange resistance to probing the question, perhaps because parties on both sides of the debate are inclined to suggest, contrary to the sentiments of the masses, that reasons simply don’t matter. It is simply wrong, one imagines the staunch pro-lifer insisting; or, if you like: it’s none of your business, from the staunch pro-choicer. Regardless, there is data available on the matter.
A 2005 study conducted by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute used a structured survey to poll 1,209 women having abortions as to why they sought them. 73 percent of women said that they could not afford a child at the time, while 74 percent cited the related reason that a child would interfere with education, work, or ability to care for dependents. A more recent 2013 study analyzed longitudinal data gathered between 2008 and 2011 from open-ended questions provided to 954 women seeking abortions, and categorized their reasons into 11 broad themes. A full 40 percent of women said they sought abortion because they did not consider themselves financially prepared for a child, while 12 percent cited a desire for a better life for a child than was then possible to provide, and 36 percent felt it simply wasn’t the right time for a baby. In this study, financial unpreparedness was the most frequently cited of all reasons provided.
Both studies track well with what is known of the financial status of women who have abortions. Women with incomes at less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level accounted for 42.4 percent of abortions between 2000 and 2008, while only roughly 15 percent of people total live under the federal poverty line.
It is challenging to say how many of these women would not have elected to have abortions had their financial circumstances been different, but a 2011 Gallup poll suggests pro-life sentiment is far more common among poorer people, with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats making under $30,000 a year identifying as “pro-life.” Couple the data with anecdotal reports like those cited in “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion,” and it seems fair to conclude that financial privation pushes a considerable number of women into electing abortion who would, in different economic arrangements, decide instead to give birth.
With this in mind, it’s unclear why so much of pro-life policy seems to center on bans and fines and scans and threats. If a woman considers herself too destitute to care for a child, there is no transvaginal ultrasound demoralizing enough and no accompanying narration excoriating enough to make her decision seem any less plausible. The specter of criminalization in some pro-life discourse is equally disturbing: surely the penal carceral system is the very last structure we would relegate poor mothers to. Even pro-life picketers seem to recognize as much. Fortunately, if the goal really is reducing abortion and supporting the ability of mothers to care for their infants, the data directs us to a very intuitive solution: give would-be moms, especially the poorest, the financial boost they need to give birth while maintaining financial security. A child allowance program fits the bill neatly.
The idea that parents should enjoy socially insured security is far from unheard of, and tends to avail itself of broad bipartisan support. But programs centered around tax code reform, like the one advanced by Republican Sen. Mike Lee, exclude the most crucial abortion demographic, that is, the poorest women. Since the poorest often file no tax returns at all, a tax credit could amount to literally nothing for them. Those who do file tax returns but make very little are consequently awarded very little in non-refundable, credit-based programs. Yet the children of poor women cost no less than the children of women who would receive meatier benefits from a tax-based system, and the regularity of monthly payments is much more amenable to the actual struggle of child-rearing than a lump sum each April.
Even for those who could marginally benefit from a tax credit, such schemas are often complicated and unclear, rendering them a questionable resource for soothing entirely legitimate fear of financial insecurity for women who suddenly find themselves expecting. Combined with the precariousness pregnancy can introduce into employment in general—especially given notoriously poor protections for pregnant women in low-income jobs—addressing financial insecurity via tax schemes seems a rather pale solution for poor would-be mothers.
In the context of the weakness of tax-based solutions, the merits of a child allowance truly shine. Simulations run by Demos’ Matt Bruenig (disclosure: Matt is my husband) demonstrate that a no-strings-attached $300 per month per child income would reduce child poverty by 42 percent, and reduce the overall number of impoverished people by 11.5 million. Existing check-in-the-mail structures like Social Security provide a good guide for the practical structure of such a program, as do correlates in other countries like the United Kingdom and Finland, among other Nordic nations. Enviably low rates of child poverty in Nordic countries underscore the success of such programs.
A child allowance wouldn’t eliminate the need for private charities that help women facing unplanned pregnancies, such as crisis pregnancy centers; on the contrary, it would provide those organizations with both effective new work and a valuable source of reassurance. One can’t overstate the virtue of charitable assistance, and there is no reason any of that would conclude with the introduction of a child allowance. What the benefit would eliminate is the regional spottiness and varied predictability of income from charitable organizations.
Crisis pregnancy centers could, in the event of a child allowance program, train volunteers to help newly expectant women sign up for the program and assist in new baby budgeting with benefit income in mind. Counseling for the emotional upset of an unplanned pregnancy would remain, of course, as necessary and welcome as ever—it would simply be underwritten with the comforting security of an income cushion rather than a jarring and potentially ruinous reduction.
By now it is likely clear that a child allowance would not constitute a panacea to the factors that cause women to seek abortions, because no solution would ever resolve them completely. The fact of the matter is rather that abortion is not a monolithic problem, but a mosaic one. It’s easy to imagine how an income boost might help in finding more suitable housing for a growing family, and an increase in income could also shore up relationships strained by the sudden introduction of a pregnancy. A low-income couple already struggling to make ends meet would undoubtedly suffer the financial impacts of a child more acutely than a similar couple in better financial circumstances; the assurance that a new child would not necessarily lead to ever more dire straits could ease such crushing anxiety.
It has long been the case that the debate over reducing abortion has cast various agents as insidiously anti-woman; each side of the argument has endured that smear. But a child allowance provides a policy path forward that is simultaneously interested in reducing abortion and empowering women, especially the most vulnerable, with the added benefit of putting money where many mouths are when it comes to valuing the lives of the unborn.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is working toward her Ph.D. in religion, politics, and philosophy at Brown University.