The Nation - November 15, 1999
ANTI-CHOICE, ANTI-CHILD Katha Pollitt
One of the favorite tactics of pro-lifers--especially ones who are self-described "progressives"--is to accuse abortion rights supporters of being anti-child, hyperindividualistic, unwilling to protect the vulnerable and generally in favor of "death." The truth is almost the opposite.
Around the world, there's a general correlation between the availability of abortion and social concern for the well-being of children, as an upcoming publication from the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy vividly suggests. The fifty nations that permit abortion regardless of a woman's reason for wanting one include countries with the world's most extensive social provisions for children--Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada. The anti-choice camp is full of countries with astronomical infant mortality rates, no free schooling and no commitment to poor kids. Cuba, the only country in Latin America that permits abortion without restriction, has universal free healthcare and education, and the lowest infant mortality rates in that region. In anti-choice Egypt, Haiti, Guatemala, Indonesia, Paraguay and Brazil children live on the street.
In Europe, Poland restricts abortion while simultaneously embracing free market policies that consign ever more children to poverty. Ireland, which bars abortion except to save the mother's life, included in its Constitution the comment that women serve the state from within the home but didn't institute free secondary schooling until l967. As for "death," the list of anti-choice nations dovetails nicely with the list of countries with capital punishment. Unfortunately, few Americans know or care what goes on outside God's own country, so the fact that the Republican platform calls for replicating the abortion laws of such child-friendly nations as Afghanistan and El Salvador gets little attention.
Now comes Jean Ruth Schroedel, associate professor of political science at Claremont Graduate University, whose findings test whether opposition to abortion in the United States is motivated by concern for children or by a desire to restrict and control women. In her forthcoming book, Is the Fetus a Person? A Comparison of Policies in the Fifty States, Schroedel sets out three criteria. If states that restrict abortion care about protecting children, born and unborn, she theorizes, one would expect them to treat the fetus as a "person" in other areas of the law; to be more likely than pro-choice states to adopt policies to combat prenatal drug use and third-party killings (physical violence by someone other than the woman that results in fetal death); and to support wide-ranging benefits for children. If, on the other hand, their stance relates to antipathy toward women's equality, one would expect to find that antiabortion states do not consistently treat the fetus as a person in other areas of the law; that women's political, social and economic status there is lower than in pro-choice states; and that they are not more likely to have policies benefiting children.
"The data," Schroedel writes, "showed that anti-abortion states do not consistently value fetal life." (Surprise!) They are far more concerned with drug use by pregnant women than with the battering and killing of pregnant women--the main way men harm fetuses. Schroedel finds that even states with weak pro-choice policies are more likely to criminalize third-party fetal killings than states with either weak or strong anti-choice policies. In six of the most stringent anti-choice states, it is not even a crime for a third party to kill a fetus--but drug users can be prosecuted for murder if the pregnancy goes awry.
Is there a relationship between the abortion laws of a given state and the status of its women? "The evidence was quite clear cut," Schroedel writes. The lower women's status--as measured by education levels, ratio of female to male earnings, percentage of women in poverty, percentage of female legislators, and state mandates that insurers cover minimum hospital stays after childbirth--the more stringent the abortion laws. This follows the global pattern. As in Iran (no abortion even to save the mother's life) so in Louisiana, the state with the most restrictions (twenty-three).
What about kids? Despite much anti-choice rhetoric about the need to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, Schroedel found that anti-choice states are "far less likely than pro-choice states to provide support for the poorest and most needy children." They spend less money per child on a range of services, from the adoption of special needs children to foster care to welfare to education. This follows the oft-noted pattern in Congress, where pro-choice legislators tend to support measures benefiting children, and anti-choice legislators tend to support tax cuts for rich people.
Schroedel's findings also support the pro-choice quip that anti-choicers' concern for children begins with conception and ends with birth, as well as the pro-choice contention that retrograde views of women--for example, that only mothers are responsible for children--shape the ways anti-choicers seek to "protect" the fetus. While Schroedel is careful not to deny the sincerity of pro-life lawmakers (I'm more cynical--too many anti-choice politicians were pro-choice before the Christian right got going), she finds "virtually no support" for the antiabortion claim that opposition to abortion is all about caring for kids.
Empirical research is a wonderful thing.