With their new paper, the Brookings Institution‘s researchers Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Venator set out to explain the dramatic difference in unintended childbearing rates between low-income and middle-class women, and how that discrepancy helps perpetuate inequality. Reeves and Venator certainly succeeded in this regard, showing how single middle-class women’s greater access to contraception and abortion leads them to have an unintended birth rate that is one-fifth as high as that of women living at or below the poverty line. As a side effect, though, the researchers also managed to touch on whether it’s possible to reduce the need for abortion by making it easier for women who choose to have babies. Their paper suggests that the answer is probably not.
For a few years now, it’s been fashionable for “intellectual” anti-choicers and even some liberals to argue that beefing up social spending could justify heavy restrictions to abortion access on the grounds that women don’t need abortion if they have a healthy public safety net. Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Emily Matchar of the Atlantic provide good examples, arguing that “Western Europe” can afford to heavily regulate abortion compared to the United States without major pushback because of all that universal health care and maternity leave. The implication is that the default position of a woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant is a glowing eagerness to have a baby, and that it’s only out of economic desperation that people go to abortion clinics. The entire crisis pregnancy center boondoggle, in fact, is based on the notion that most women who are considering abortion would secretly rather have the baby if they could just find a reason to do so.
The idea clearly appeals to those who hold the essentialist view that all women are baby-crazy deep down inside. But the narrative also has traction amongst more pro-choice types, because it is true that lower-income women get more abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, women at the federal poverty line or below constitute 42 percent of those getting an abortion; individuals who make between the federal poverty line and 200 percent of it make up yet another 27 percent. In other words, if you’re a single woman making $23,000, you’re in the top 30 percent of women getting abortions, income-wise. So with statistics like that, it’s easy to buy the argument that women mostly have abortions under economic duress and would choose to have more babies if they could afford it.
But the Brookings numbers upend that entire narrative. If women were generally inclined to keep unintended pregnancies but only abort out of desperation, we should see poor women aborting more of their pregnancies than middle-class women. But instead, we see the opposite: Single, middle-class women (defined as someone making more than $44,700 a year) who get pregnant abort 32 percent of the time, whereas single women who get pregnant while living in poverty abort less than 10 percent of the time. The inescapable conclusion is that even when they can afford to have a baby, a lot of women choose to have abortions anyway. In fact, the women who can afford to have babies turn to abortion more often, because they can afford that too. To be sure, there are some women who are aborting pregnancies they would keep if they could just afford to. But, as data gathered by the Guttmacher in 2004 shows, it’s usually more complicated than that: Relationships, education, job ambitions, and family obligations are all in the mix. Not being able to “afford” a baby is often about more than just money, as important as money is.
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The math can get a little confusing, so I explained at Slate how poor women can get more abortions in absolute numbers while middle-class women can abort a higher percentage of their pregnancies. The short version: Lower-income women get pregnant a lot more overall, meaning they have more babies and have more abortions. Reducing the poverty rate would dramatically reduce the abortion rate, sure—but because people would be able to use more and better contraception, not because they want more babies.
This, again, undercuts the recurring argument that people only seek abortions out of economic necessity. Last year, Kristine Kruszelnicki of Secular Pro-Life, playing the part of the “pro-life” feminist, wrote, “If we all work together to come up with real choices for women—better birth control, better maternity leave, subsidized daycare, a living wage, flexible work schedules, better schooling options, more attractive open-adoption and temporary foster care options, etc.—abortion may roll itself into the world of obsolescence, regardless of its legal status.”
It’s hard to take the argument as a good faith one, as Secular Pro-Life wants to ban abortion now, and they aren’t actually interested in waiting until we get all those maternity benefits and fancy schools that will supposedly make us all line up to have more babies. But setting that issue aside, the Brookings numbers expose this line of argumentation for the fantasy that it is. If the women who are more able to afford to have a baby when facing an unexpected pregnancy are still opting for termination one-third of the time, then clearly the demand for abortion is not becoming obsolete. If anything, it suggests a lot more women would be getting abortions if they could just afford the cost to do so.
Which makes sense. Having sex is fun and having babies is hard. Of course people are going to do more of the former than the latter, and of course they’re going to lean on technological advances like contraception and abortion to do so. The real problem here is that the price for having sex without having babies is out of the reach of so many women.
The fantasy that women sitting in abortion clinics are secretly wishing they could be decorating nurseries appeals to both pro- and anti-choicers. Anti-choicers, of course, want to use that fantasy to suggest banning abortion is done for women’s own good. But many pro-choicers like to invoke that fantasy, too, when they talk about how abortion is always a hard and serious decision that involves a lot of reflection and struggle. A lot of pro-choicers think it’s easier to be sympathetic to women who want babies but who are valiantly sacrificing that desire because they don’t believe they can afford to raise one right now. The problem is that image often doesn’t comport with reality.
Social services that make having a baby easier are important, but they are important not because they reduce the abortion rate, but because women should have the right to raise children in safe, healthy environments. By the same token, safe, affordable abortion access isn’t some necessary evil that we can somehow eliminate through public spending. It’s important for the same reason contraception is: because women are full human beings who have a right to conduct our social, sexual, and family lives on our own terms. Affordable, accessible abortion isn’t an alternative to a healthy safety net. On the contrary, it should be part of a social spending system that helps women live their lives with privacy and dignity.