Alabama’s Senate has voted to ban nearly all abortions of pregnancy, with exceptions only when life or health of the mother is seriously threatened and when the child has a fatal disease. The bill is likely to become law.
This comes on the heels of a series of “heartbeat bills” in several states designed to protect the prenatal child after a heartbeat is detected — bills that some, including even USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, have labeled “extreme.” (Powers has identified as pro-life in the past but no longer does.)
In a strict sense, Powers is correct. Given the current U.S. public opinion on abortion, while 7 in 10 support broad restrictions on abortion after 12 weeks, large majorities also support legal access to abortion before that time. Going down to six weeks, or going all the way back to the beginning of pregnancy, is indeed an extreme position.
That doesn’t, of course, make it a mistaken position. In the middle of the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln’s opponents tried to paint him as someone with positions that were “extreme” at the time — insisting that he secretly supported interracial marriage and African Americans’ right to vote. I think the current approach of Alabama and other states — although they are to be admired for working for equal protection of the law for all children — is politically mistaken. But that doesn’t make them wrong in principle.
In my new book, “Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People,” I try to flesh out one major problem with these approaches. Just as most abortion-rights legislation makes the prenatal child largely invisible, this kind of pro-life legislation makes the mother largely invisible.
This comes from a more general problem with U.S. legislation. Far too often, we think of ourselves as atomized monads with legal rights and protections that apply or don’t based a cultural imagination that thinks of us as autonomous individual selves. But that’s a mistaken view of human nature. Our essential relationality cannot be captured by legal assumptions that presume autonomous individualism. As a result, those negatively affected by such laws are often marginalized when they become burdensome for those who have power.
Pregnancy is perhaps the paradigmatic example of the intrinsic relationality of human beings. It is absurd to call the baby “part of the mother’s body” (especially when, in some pregnancy cases, an immune system can attack the child as foreign tissue). But the two people do make and share an organ in common: the placenta. Given these biological realities, all sides of the abortion issue make a profound mistake when, in their rhetoric and proposed legislation, they artificially cut one-half of the relationship out of the discussion.
What would it look like for states such as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana to avoid this mistake?
Well, to put it directly, extremism in defense of the prenatal child ought to be paired with extremism in support of women.
In the past, I’ve made an argument that passing the Pain-Capable Act, which protects prenatal children after 20 weeks, ought to be paired with paid family leave. Although pregnancy is often a great blessing, we ought to acknowledge the real and sometimes overwhelming burdens that pregnancy and child-rearing put on mothers — especially in a patriarchal culture that still insists that the normative way of being in the world is to be unpregnant.
That is a reasonable approach for a modest 20-week restriction. (Most of Europe broadly restricts abortion after 12 to 16 weeks.) But if abortion restrictions dip well into the first trimester, then social supports for mothers need to go well beyond paid family leave. Here are some suggestions for increased support:
· Universal prekindergarten
· A graduated scale of direct subsidies for child care
· More legal protections for mothers at work based on family status
· Increased penalties for and outreach regarding intimate-partner violence (which correlates strongly with abortion)
· Dramatic reformation of the adoption industry so as to be more friendly to pregnant women and hopeful adoptive parents
· Increased funding for the foster care system
Proposals like this coming from the pro-life movement not only send the right message rhetorically, but they are sound legal strategy as well. Many legal scholars believe that a Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is unlikely to simply overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey — and will instead have a less expansive view of the kinds of abortion restrictions that constitute an “undue burden” on women. One dramatic way to lessen the burden of abortion restrictions on women is to dramatically increase social support for pregnant women and other mothers.
But, ultimately, the reason to pair extremism in defense of the prenatal child with extremism in support of women is because justice requires it. Here, Pope Francis can become a model: He described abortion as a “white-collar Nazi crime” when it comes to the doctors who perform it, but at the same time argued for overflowing mercy and support for women and mothers.
Resisting “throwaway culture” requires intense efforts to lift up and support populations so marginalized by a U.S. culture obsessed with individualism and autonomy that they are discarded as mere objects or trash. Pro-lifers get it largely right when it comes to doing this for the prenatal child, even when those who hold power in the culture paint us as extremists.
But we must do a much better job lifting up and supporting the other half of the relationship at the heart of pregnancy. Merely restricting abortion makes the same kind of mistake, perhaps unintentionally, that our opponents make on abortion.
Pro-lifers, if we are to consistently honor our principles, must become champions for both mothers and their prenatal children.
Charles C. Camosy (@ccamosy) is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham, a board member of Democrats for Life and author of the just-published book, “Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the incorrect century in which Abraham Lincoln’s opponents challenged his positions. It was in the middle of the 19th century. This piece has also been updated to identify USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers as formerly identifying as pro-life.