Does American Society Need Abortion?
At a Senate Banking Committee hearing shortly after the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that curtailing the right to an abortion “would have very damaging effects on the economy.” Women denied abortions would lose educational opportunities and see their “odds of living in poverty” or their “need for public assistance” rise. And this would have follow-on consequences for their children, who would then “grow up in poverty and do worse themselves.”
Yellen’s comments offer a useful place to start the final essay in my series unpacking the major pro-choice arguments that have circulated since the Dobbs decision. The first two columns were focused on physical and psychological issues, arguments about the personal burdens borne by women asked to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
This one will focus more on economic and sociological issues, and particularly the belief that crucial elements in our current American way of life — economic prosperity, female opportunity, social stability — depend on the ready availability of abortion.
This belief has several points in its favor. First is the general reality that, while many other developed countries have somewhat more restrictive abortion laws than the most liberal U.S. states, almost none have the sweeping bans pursued by the pro-life movement, the kind that attempt to limit abortion to the most exceptional or dangerous situations. In general, prosperity, modernity and pro-choice policies appear as a package deal.
There are a few notable outliers — Ireland before 2018, Chile for the moment, Poland — but overall the pro-life movement’s goals are genuinely revolutionary, even utopian, relative to the pattern of the post-1960s developed world. And a certain skepticism is always appropriate when someone’s proposed system doesn’t have many existing models and the world as we know it tends the other way.
Then there is the specific evidence that the use of abortion can be associated with better socioeconomic outcomes for individual women. In the last column in this series I mentioned the Turnaway Study, an investigation comparing the lives of women denied abortions to similarly-situated women who obtained them, arguing that its evidence doesn’t necessarily support the simple pro-choice frame in which it is often placed. But that study does buttress Yellen’s economic claims, showing that women turned away from abortion do face subsequent socioeconomic hardship relative to women who obtain one. So if you simply generalized from those individual outcomes to the societal level, you would expect a pro-life society to be somewhat poorer and more stratified.
Indeed, even firm opponents of abortion sometimes allow that this might be the case. In an essay in these pages, Matthew Walther argued that pro-lifers needed to be prepared for the reality that “an America without abortion” might well “mean more single mothers and more births to teenage mothers, increased strain on Medicaid and other welfare programs, higher crime rates, a less dynamic and flexible work force, an uptick in carbon emissions, lower student test scores and goodness knows what else.” The principle that one must not kill an unborn child, he argued, will necessarily disrupt a society built on denying an unborn right to life, and thus abortion opponents need to be prepared for a difficult transition to the more just and decent society they seek.
There is wisdom in this perspective; a movement with utopian ambitions needs a recognition that it’s seeking a genuinely different society as well as a different set of laws.
But at the same time it concedes too much to the Yellen worldview, the abortion-as-economic-benefit analysis. And one reason to believe this comes from the work of Janet Yellen herself.
In 1996, Yellen and her husband, George Akerlof, joined their fellow economist Michael Katz in a paper titled “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States.” They were attempting to explain what seemed like a riddle: In a world where strategies to control births had improved significantly, with contraception available and abortion legal, why were so many more women having children outside of marriage?
Raising kids alone is difficult, and single parenthood imposes substantial economic burdens, so you would think that in giving women more choice in when they carry a pregnancy to term, more women would choose to do so with the child’s father wedded and present. Instead, the opposite was happening, with post-1960s, post-Roe America seeing an unprecedented rise in the share of children born outside of wedlock — a rise that continued for more than a decade after 1996, before finally leveling off around 40 percent of all births, compared with 5 percent in 1960 and about 10 percent in 1970.
Part of the explanation that the paper proposed was that there had been a fundamental change in the reciprocal obligations of men and women. A system in which sex could be separated from fertility decisively, with abortion a guaranteed backstop for anyone who wanted it, made it much harder for women who wanted commitment and children to make long-term demands of the men who wanted to have sex with them. As Yellen and Akerlof wrote, in a Brookings policy brief adapted from the original paper, the old “shotgun marriage” scenario, where society expected men to “promise marriage in the event of a pregnancy,” depended on a sense of inherent obligation. But if any unintended pregnancy could be ended by the free choice of the woman, then the male could reasonably deny the existence of any definite obligation on his part.
“By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother,” Akerlof and Yellen concluded, “the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.” This shift, they suggested, could not be undone; any social conservatism appears in their analysis as a probably futile effort to“turn the technological clock backwards.” But the new female freedom came at a cost to women who wanted fidelity and children and didn’t want to have abortions; for them, the post-sexual revolution world was less supportive, its norms now reset to work against expectations of monogamy, commitment and support.
Men could lose out in this new culture as well. Just as the woman who wants commitment sees her position weakened when abortion is a normal and expected alternative, so does the man who wants involvement, obligation, an expectation he can rise to meet — and who is told instead, in every case where the woman’s choice is for abortion, to simply forget any paternal pang or instinct, to detach entirely from the life he cocreated. The man confronted by what in a different culture would be the most important obligation of his life is told in ours that it’s at most an economic burden, a matter of child-support payments — and if he’s lucky and she chooses to get an abortion, it won’t be even that.
Extend this imaginative analysis still further, and you can see that the right to abortion creates not just new social incentives that disfavor commitment and paternal obligation but also a kind of moral and spiritual alienation between the sexes. The most transformative thing that men and women do together becomes instead a ground of separation. The man’s right to avoid marital obligation separates the pregnant woman from either him, her unborn child or both. The woman’s right to end the pregnancy separates the man who doesn’t want to see it ended from what would otherwise be the most important relationship imaginable. And downstream from this alienation lies the culture we experience today, in which not just marriage rates but also relationships and sex itself are in decline, in which people have fewer children overall and fewer than they say they want, and also have more of them outside of wedlock than in the past.
All of this carries a set of socioeconomic costs to set against the benefits invoked by the Yellen of 2022. Yes, individual by individual, women who obtain abortion in a pro-choice society can improve their own financial picture or educational prospects; so can the man who avoids paternal obligations through the woman’s right to choose. But male and female choices overall, the cultural matrix that determines their prospects for stable relationships, romantic happiness and a productive adulthood, may still be shaped for the worse by a society that defaults so often to abortion.
If that shaping influence yields fewer marriages and fewer two-parent households, it will place much more financial stress on women who choose to become mothers.
If it yields more children growing up without a father, and especially more sons growing up with absent dads — as Richard Reeves’s recent book, “Of Boys and Men,” points out, boys seem to fare particularly poorly in those circumstances — then it will impose multigenerational costs on those kids’ economic prospects.
And if it yields fewer children in the long run, not just because of abortion itself but because the sexes are failing to pair off, then that will be a permanent drag on prosperity and growth.
One can counter that if abortion is a fundamental liberty, a requirement of equality, none of this should matter. Any cost to prosperity and social stability is trumped by the necessity of emancipating women, and we just have to accept that we’re still groping our way toward a stable alternative to the patriarchal order we rightly overthrow (or haven’t finished overthrowing).
But that’s just the pro-choice version of the Walther argument — that sometimes justice requires accepting destabilization and disorder — and it should be acknowledged as such, rather than dressed up as a defense of bourgeois prosperity and growth.
A subtler rejoinder might point out that nothing is simple here. Just as the original sexual revolution was a multi-factorial affair, the current alienation of the sexes can’t just be about abortion; it’s shaped by everything from globalization’s effect on blue-collar male wages to the internet’s effect on current young-adult social lives. The Yellen-Akerlof-Katz paper may have been a plausible analysis, but it didn’t claim to measure an exact “Roe v. Wade” effect, separate from all other forces shaping the modern socioeconomic landscape. And as Yellen and Akerlof argued in drawing pro-choice conclusions, you can’t assume that such an effect could be reversed just by reversing abortion policy; we don’t know how much of the shift was driven by the birth control pill alone, or what effect anti-abortion laws would have once the cultural transition they describe has taken place.
But you also can’t just assume that our society’s post-1960s path is inevitable and impossible to redirect, that we’re on the only road an economically advanced society can ever take. You can’t insist that the immediate economic benefits of ending a pregnancy should be counted in Roe v. Wade’s favor, but any of the larger negative shifts in mating and marriage and child rearing associated with abortion can’t be considered as part of the debate.
Here the pro-life cause’s very utopianism, its goal of a society for which no definite model yet exists, can be an analytic asset, while the practiced realism of the pro-choice side can double as excuse making for the unhappy aspects of the status quo. If you sit fully inside the dominant paradigms of our society, then abortion seems like it must be good for the economy — the woman who gets an abortion has more time and money for her own education, the unborn child might have been poor and costly to the welfare state, and so on.
But step outside those frameworks, try to look at the larger direction of the developed world — even try to imagine yourself passing the judgments of capital-H History on our society from a vantage point a few centuries hence.
What you might see from this perspective is a world where economic growth has decelerated under the rule of social liberalism, and various forms of stagnation have set in. A world clearly shadowed by the effects of family breakdown and social atomization, with loneliness and despair stalking young and old alike. A rich world whose chief economic problem over the next few generations is population aging, population decline, childless cities and empty hinterlands and a vast inverted demographic pyramid on the shoulders of the young.
And then you would also see, from this arc-of-history vantage point, the most influential voices in our aging, unhappy, stagnation-shadowed society — the most educated and impassioned and articulate, the most self-consciously devoted to the idea of progress — committing and recommitting themselves to the view that nothing is so important as to continue ensuring that hundreds of thousands of unborn lives can be ended in utero every year.
I conclude this series with an appeal to readers who are thus committed. Giving due weight to all the reasons that you hold so firmly to this principle, I beseech you to consider that you are making a mistake.
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