Can Pro-Choice People Support the Pregnant Women Support Act?

Cristina Page

Neutralizing income as a determining factor for what a woman does in her reproductive life is reproductive justice. Much of the Pregnant Women Support Act is a means to that end. But the bill would also prop up crisis pregnancy centers.

On the 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade, Senator Bob Casey, who
opposes legal abortion, introduced what he described as a common ground
bill: The Pregnant Women Support Act. He explained, "I
believe there is more common ground in America than we might realize.
If only we focus on how we can truly help and support women who wish to
carry their pregnancies to term and how we can give them and their
babies what they really need to begin healthy and productive lives
together."

Pro-choice people, like myself, get a little defensive over
proposals such as this, and the righteous rhetoric that accompanies
them. This legislation proposes to provide support to low-income women
who want to bring a pregnancy to term. Pro-choice elected officials
have proposed providing more support to low-income women and families
for years. But let’s put aside pride of authorship for the time being.
In the new age of conciliation we might file away such grievances in
the hopes that having the anti-choice side think it was their idea
might help get it done. That’s not to say that the Pregnant Woman Support Act is perfect — it’s not.  (It fails to mention family planning.  Planning a pregnancy is step one to having a healthy one.  And how can any proposal aimed at reducing abortion be taken seriously without including contraception?)  But it
does do a lot of great things and there are solutions for the areas
that are problematic. First let’s review its attributes:

The Pregnant Women Support Act is inspired by the belief that if
women facing unintended pregnancy are provided substantive help they
might continue, rather than terminate, a pregnancy. Two-thirds of all
women seeking abortion care report it’s because they cannot afford to
have a child. Perhaps choosing abortion because one can’t afford to
have a child is not the best choice for her.  In a perfect pro-choice
world, parenting, abortion and adoption would be equally available
options, and, importantly, none would be stigmatized. Neutralizing
income as a determining factor for what a woman does in her
reproductive life is reproductive justice. Much of the Pregnant Women
Support Act is a means to that end. For example it would provide
financial, medical, educational assistance, insurance coverage for
those in need who ordinarily would not qualify for it. A woman can get
nurse home visits, counseling, shelter, help with child care,
assistance to help her stay in school, and a lot of other services that
may broaden her choices. That’s all good.

Here’s where the problem starts for pro-choice people. The bill would:

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"Create
a new pilot program for "Life Support Centers" to offer comprehensive
and supportive services for pregnant women, mothers, and children."

Life Support Centers appears to be a way, among other things, to
funnel money into crisis pregnancy centers. These have been a ruse of
pro-life activists. They are billed as places a pregnant woman can
visit  to consider all her options. But they mislead women about the
options available to them, offering up inaccurate information intended
to scare women about abortion. Misleading women is not something
pro-choice organizations or elected officials will be able to support
(nor should any self-respecting pro-lifer). Removal of the section
should be fought for vigorously.

Or alternatively, find a way to legislate out its heavy-handed
agenda. If the ideological, coercive and misleading tactics that are
the signature of crisis pregnancy centers were prohibited, there could
be a limited but legitimate role for these centers to play in the
delivery of support services. But an affirmative and explicit
disclaimer should be issued right up front.  The Pregnant Women Support
Act would be a good place to begin to insist that crisis pregnancy
centers act in a responsible way. Make  "Life Support Centers" stick to
medical facts rather than ideology.  There ought to be a "no
propaganda" agreement right up front in every common ground campaign.
Anti-abortion activists have, in several states, succeeded in passing
legislation mandating that ideological, medically inaccurate scripts be
read to patients who seek abortions services. Mandating that ideology
and inaccuracy be inserted into a medical environment, as the
anti-abortion movement has done, is ethically troublesome. But what if,
instead, the law mandated that medical and scientific accuracy be
required of ideological organizations masquerading as health centers?
An amendment to the Pregnant Women Support Act could propose that every
"Life Support Center" receiving federal funds be required to provide
medically accurate information to all it counsels and also disclose
that its mission is to convince women not to have an abortion.
Providing accurate information should be a common ground goal and
anti-abortion organizations should have no problem admitting that
convincing women not to choose abortion is their intent. Each center
would be required to read a script that include information like this:

"This is not a medical facility. There are no medical personnel on
staff. The staff of this facility is unable to diagnose complications
of pregnancy or fetal anomalies (birth defects). This facility is
staffed by people who are opposed to abortion and contraception.
Medical research shows that women who have an abortion are at no
greater risk of breast cancer, miscarriage in future pregnancies,
mental distress or any other mental or physical disorder than women who
have never had an abortion. Ultrasound images may exaggerate the size
of the embryo/fetus."  Etc.

Sprinkled throughout the Pregnant Women Support Act is the term
"counseling."  The "no propaganda" rule should apply in every instance
a woman receives counseling. (To pre-emptively address a point that
will be made by opponents of abortion: no, medically, scientifically
accepted, peer-reviewed evidence does not fall under the category of
propaganda.)

Another area of concern is that the bill proposes to promote
adoption as an alternative to abortion. There is no doubt that the
adoption industry has changed dramatically in the last forty years, in
great part because of legal abortion. Many Americans, including women
confronting unwanted pregnancy, are not aware that the adoption choice
now offers many avenues, including open adoption. There is a real need
to update Americans’ understanding of adoption as an option for
unwanted pregnancy. But, it should not be in the context of disparaging
other choices. As the book, The Girls Who Went Away,
and even recent discussions on Rewire reveal, adoption is
typically a difficult choice and many women suffer immensely by being
pressured into that option. For some women abortion is the wrong choice
and for some women adoption is the wrong choice. There is great need
for education about adoption, there’s no need to present it as an
alternative to abortion or parenting. A woman, if given comprehensive
and accurate information about all of her choices, is her own best
moral agent.

The last sticking point for pro-choice people with the bill is that
it seeks to codify the regulation that extends coverage under the State
Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to both low-income pregnant
women and unborn children. As long as pregnant women are extended
prenatal care coverage through Medicaid, this is a superfluous section
and a back-door attempt to create independent rights in law for a
fetus. This section would not prevent one abortion or make it any
easier for women to bring a pregnancy to term. It defies the
"common-ground" spirit the bill was intended to cultivate. Keeping it
in the bill could only be interpreted as a cynical attempt to co-opt
"common ground" for anti-choice purposes.

With these important changes, none of which jeopardize the true
intent of the bill, we should be prepared, for the moment, to take
Senator Casey at his word when he says he wants a common ground
approach. Senator Casey stated, "I
introduce this bill with the deepest conviction that we can find common
ground. I believe that we can transform this debate by focusing upon
the issues that unite us, not the issues that divide us."
If that is true, and these slight changes are made to the bill,
pro-choice people are a more likely constituency of support. But if
these proposals remain, common ground will not be achieved and pregnant
women won’t get the support they deserve.

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