Opinion: The anti-abortion movement’s dilemma

By JOHN L. CAMPBELL

Published: 02-28-2023 6:00 AM

John L. Campbell is the Class of 1925 Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Dartmouth College.  His most recent book is “Institutions Under Siege: Donald Trump’s Attack on the Deep State.”

Anti-abortion activists marched in Washington D.C. last month. In years past, their March for Life advocated repealing Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision to legalize abortion. The Court overturned that decision last summer thanks in large part to the anti-abortion movement’s success in recruiting and electing like-minded Republicans to Congress, and eventually Donald Trump to the presidency, all of which resulted in the Court being dominated by the conservative supermajority that torpedoed Roe. But having won the battle over Roe, why march again?

First, activists want to convince policymakers to pass legislation outlawing abortion nationwide. Apparently, shifting responsibility for legislating abortion rights to the states in the wake of Roe’s demise was not good enough even though, since then, thirteen states have severely restricted abortion access and others are considering doing the same.

In New Hampshire, for instance, the legislature is currently debating HB 591, which would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically before a woman knows that she is pregnant. It is also considering HB 562, which would impose several administrative and medical hurdles that women must pass before being allowed to have an abortion.

The second reason for marching, according to the New York Times (January 20), was that some anti-abortion activists want policymakers to expand social safety net programs, such as the child tax credit, paid parental leave, affordable child care, and Medicaid funding for prenatal care, delivery, and postpartum expenses, that will help reduce the economic and social pressures behind some abortion decisions. The idea is that if these benefits and services are available, pregnant women will presumably be less inclined to opt for an abortion because giving birth and rearing a child will be less burdensome financially and otherwise.

Herein lies an extraordinary political irony. The Republicans that anti-abortion proponents have sent recently to Washington, such as Jim Jordan (R-OH), Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), not to mention Donald Trump, have pushed the party farther and farther toward conservative extremes. While this led to Roe’s demise, as anti-abortion activists wanted, and may yet help facilitate passage of more restrictive national abortion legislation, it also makes it more difficult to expand the social safety net programs that they now say we need since Roe was overturned. Why? Because most Republicans that the anti-abortion activists sent to Washington don’t want to expand these programs, they want to cut them.

The looming fight over raising the U.S. government debt ceiling illustrates this. The debt ceiling is the upper limit on what Congress allows the government to borrow to fund its programs and activities, pay its workers, finance the military, and service its debt. We reached that limit last month: $31.4 trillion. Congressional Republicans like Jordan, Gaetz and Greene swear that they will do all they can to prevent raising the debt ceiling unless budgets for all sorts of things, including spending on social programs like those that the anti-abortion activists now favor, are slashed.

So, the anti-abortion movement has put itself on the horns of a dilemma. If the congressional Republicans they helped elect have their way, then the movement’s twin goals, limiting access to abortions by making them illegal and reducing the demand for abortions by beefing up social programs, will be politically irreconcilable.

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Furthermore, if Republicans succeed in torpedoing these social programs, the consequences will be devastating for women. On the one hand, their access to safe and legal abortion services will remain limited and perhaps erode further. On the other hand, the institutional supports for their maternal needs and well-being will diminish. States that rely heavily on federal funds will be hit especially hard.

For example, in New Hampshire, roughly one-third of the state budget is funded by revenue from the federal government. These funds help pay for the sorts of maternal services and benefits that the anti-abortion movement now calls for. If the money from Washington dries up, it will jeopardize these services and benefits.

That is why it is imperative that Congress pass national legislation protecting abortion rights and defend the social programs that Republicans are targeting in the debt ceiling fight. Short of that, it is also why states like New Hampshire, already stingy when it comes to funding many social services, should reject proposed legislation like HB 591 and HB 562 that would restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and instead pass legislation protecting women’s reproductive freedom.

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