Does abortion harm women? The question is posed and answered in a brief filed by Advancing American Freedom (AAF) and other “friends of the Court” in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case in which the Supreme Court could revisit its rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Together, Roe and Casey hold that there is an (effectively unfettered) constitutional right to an abortion. AAF’s answer is that Roe and Casey have shown a “disregard for the value of human life” that has caused substantial harms to society, and that “these harms have been particularly damaging to women.” Is that claim right? If so, can the pro-life movement provide the real, empowering feminism that the abortion industry failed to?
Abortion’s Effects on Women’s Health
Almost anything that can be said on abortion’s harmful effects on women’s health and bodies will be controverted. Both sides can marshal evidence and studies, and the social science is apt to be politicized.
Nonetheless, there is a good case, summarized by Erika Bachiochi, that abortion has adverse emotional and even physical consequences for women. Bachiochi points to studies that show women who have had abortions have a heightened risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
One study found that women who aborted unintended pregnancies were 30 percent more likely later to report generalized anxiety disorder than women who had carried such pregnancies to term. Other studies found that the risk of suicide was two to six times higher for women who have had abortions than for those who have given birth.
Abortion’s Broader Social Effects
The AAF brief identifies broader social effects that have accompanied creating a legal right to abortion. While the correlation between current abortion law and these effects may not prove causation, AAF notes the relationship between the legalization of abortion and declining family formation.
The broader social movements that legalized abortion also encouraged radical change in the structure of the marriage market. Changing attitudes created inducements to engage in risky sexual activity, to prefer multiple sexual partners over a constant, single one, to avoid deep emotional commitments in romantic relationships, and to eschew the difficult but rewarding task of building a life and a family with a spouse.
Further, the current legal understanding of abortion as purely a private decision by a woman, AAF says, “has fostered employer disregard and even disdain for pregnancy.” Although AAF does not refer to the episode, the story told over many years by a former employee of Michael Bloomberg is a perfect illustration of this point.
According to Sekiko Sakai, a successful saleswoman for Bloomberg, he asked her how she was enjoying married life. Sakai replied that she was pregnant. “Kill it,” she says was her boss’s reply.
That employers should have such attitudes – although usually more diplomatically expressed – is not at all surprising, even though pregnancy discrimination has long been illegal. From the perspective of a profit-maximizing employer, a productive employee’s pregnancy is an unnecessary and self-indulgent absence from the job that disrupts operations and hurts the bottom line.
Current Supreme Court law subtly but unerringly encourages attitudes like these. As AAF puts it, Roe and Casey “teach society that it has no responsibility, duty, or even ability to revere and protect unborn children.”
A New and Better Feminism?
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs is likely to be a game-changer, one way or the other. To overcome Roe and Casey, the right needs a radically different kind of feminism and a set of policies to match it. It would have to be a kind of feminism that does not take a fundamentally degrading view of women, unlike the faux feminism that underpins Roe and Casey, telling women they can only fit into society on men’s terms.
The false feminism told women their biology was not their fate, and promised to liberate them to choose their fate if they rejected their biology. The truer feminism tells women they can, and should, own their fate without disowning their biology.
The real feminist revolution has yet to happen. The workplace has not made adequate changes to accommodate women; women have been retooled to accommodate the workplace. Conservatives need to develop – and, when in office, enact – policies that go to the basic, structural features of our economy and reconfigure them to suit the needs of working mothers.
Take one straightforward example: mandated paid maternal leave. The United States is the only country (apart from Papua New Guinea) not to mandate paid maternal leave on a nationwide basis. (We leave that matter to the states.) Of the richest 41 countries on the planet, the United States is one of only 15 that does not offer any nationwide paternity leave.
A 2019 UNICEF publication reported paid parental leaves of moderate length “support women’s economic empowerment.” For instance, a study of Germany’s one-year paid parental leave program “found that the reform increased the likelihood of maternal employment by 12 percent.”
Other mother- and parent-friendly programs could also flow from a new feminism, such as more spending on prenatal or early childhood health care. Or government support for “hybrid” homeschooling, in which public schools provide classes to children part-time, so parents can work part-time.
Such policies could also help America’s demographic crisis, boosting births (evidence strongly suggests the stimulus checks boosted births by providing economic security). They could even be designed to phase out multiple welfare programs and reduce welfare’s marriage penalties across the board — all while providing families the means to keep one spouse at home with the children should the family choose to do so.
The pro-life movement can and should be an important part of this new feminism. The movement’s clear and central vision for decades has been to get the law changed – and to stop, or at least reduce, the slaughter. That has been a completely laudable goal to which countless numbers of good and generous people have dedicated much of their lives.
But it may soon be time for the movement to up its game. It should have an educational, not merely a legal, mission. Overturning Roe will not be enough. Even stopping (some of) the killing will not be enough. Restoring the sense of the true dignity of womanhood is the momentous but achievable task for a post-Roe world.