Poverty is not the root cause of abortion

The explosion of abortion in the US didn’t follow a corresponding explosion of poverty, as one would expect if poverty causes abortion.

People pass a Planned Parenthood clinic March 17 in New York City. (CNS photo/Justin Lane, EPA)

As is often the case with secular refrains, there is an element of truth in it: the roots of (particular evil or problem) are structural; therefore strengthening or fixing the structure will solve the problem.

One hears this often in discussions about abortion. The latest version of the argument goes like this: abortion is caused by structural poverty, so to reduce abortions we must give women options via state benefits. Private pregnancy centers are fine, though they don’t help address the “root causes” of poverty and lack of access to health care, which, again, could be alleviated by more government benefits and policies. The “pro-life” political battle against abortion is futile or worse, as it requires alliances with evil, manipulative powers (Republicans and conservatives) who make promises but rarely deliver, and who push for laws that are harmful to life. Further, making abortion illegal won’t stop women from having them, just as the “culture wars” against contraception, family breakdown, and sexual liberation only exacerbate the problem. Therefore, the pro-life actions all people of good will should be able to agree upon are to increase state benefits that help mothers in difficult situations, and to put equal amounts of time and energy into everything from gun control to environmental activism. Though this part is usually left out, it logically follows that at the national and state levels this means electing Democrats, who—while doing everything in their power to protect abortion providers, force those opposed to pay for abortion and participate in the act, and who call abortion a “fundamental right” —tend to enact policies that reduce overall abortion rates. Case in point: abortion rates decreased under the quite pro-choice Obama administration. And isn’t that the goal?

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that most pro-lifers either support or do not oppose government benefits for women with unexpected pregnancies. Let’s focus instead on what the “root cause” of abortion really is. If we get this wrong, we’re likely to seek the wrong solutions.

First, just as it was not the goal of the anti-slavery movement to merely reduce the number of human beings treated like animals, it is not the goal of the anti-abortion and pro-life movement to merely reduce the number of abortions. We aim to stop every abortion, with every conceived child welcomed into life in a healthy family with parents able to support themselves in this beautiful and necessary participation in the gift of new life. Due to human failings, assistance will be needed for those lacking the means and support to choose life, and this should be provided by entities as close to the mother in distress as possible, in ways that do not depersonalize her and her baby and have unintended but predictable negative consequences. The vision is best articulated in the intersection of the Catholic social doctrine principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in a personalist frame: direct presence with, and service of, those most in need. This would follow, not precede, a robust formation in the faith and its truths of the human person in community, in both moral and social dimensions. More on this later.

Second, if structural poverty caused by greed and insufficient government benefits were the “root cause” of the demand for abortion, we would expect to see at some point a clear empirical and historical case made in support of the argument, not just links to surveys of abortion-minded women. Yet we await the first serious attempt to do so. Abortion rates have been falling not just since Obama took office, but since 1990 under the first President Bush, even following the dreaded Welfare Reform Act of 1996, signed into law under Clinton. If insufficient state benefits for women were the “root cause” of abortion, one might expect to see the opposite. And during Obama’s tenure, he and his “social justice” supporters railed against the “injustice” of the many new abortion restrictions implemented at the state level, which certainly helped to lower abortion rates. Keep this in mind when you hear someone say that the political and legal battle against abortion is futile.

Further, in the United States, all available data shows that abortion rates began to ramp up in 1967 and skyrocket in 1970, coinciding with certain states legalizing abortion in some cases and general increases in wealth and government social spending. And we all know, or we should know, what happened in 1973. Of particular relevance here is the fact that the explosion of abortion rates occurred shortly after the launch of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which sought to alleviate poverty by increasing government welfare programs. A serious case for increasing government welfare programs as the key to addressing the “root cause” of abortion would have to at least attempt to address this correlation.

One might also look outside the United States for evidence for poverty as the root cause of abortion. It is not clear, for example, that those making the structural or individual poverty-based argument—or rather, claim—have ever attempted to understand the low abortion rates in poor African nations or asked why African countries by and large reject abortion as an “aid and development” import from (this is important) wealthy nations, under the guise of women’s health and rights.

Saying that political fights over laws and judicial appointments are foolish or worse (if you are conservative, at least) seems to be a staple of the “poverty causes abortion” argument. Yet, any study of history shows that the law not only limits or enables, it teaches. And if this is the case, as it certainly is, why does the “structural poverty” crowd insist that efforts to reverse abortion laws or limit access are futile or misplaced? If the problem is that such efforts require alliances with political forces that decent folk should have nothing to do with, then where is the circumspection when it comes to the political alliances that they prefer—namely with those who call the slaughter of innocents in the womb a “human right” and who say that opponents of abortion have no place in their political party?

The explosion of abortion in the US followed not some corresponding explosion of poverty, as one would expect if poverty were its root cause. It occurred during a time of relative, if uneven, economic prosperity. Nor was the massive increase in abortions prevented—as many said it would be—by the legalization and widespread promotion of contraception and sex education in schools. Of course, the opposite happened: these “science-based” and “progressive” necessities led directly and logically to the abortion explosion, as people’s beliefs and behavior changed. Soon, the law followed and vastly accelerated the slaughter. This was intended by the sexual revolutionaries, but likely not by the secular-minded Christians who thought the embrace of contraception, divorce, and sex education was in essence a bargain that would forestall further collapse of the family and society.

As these perhaps well-intentioned folks learned, or at least as some of them learned, if you get the root cause wrong, your solution will be wrong. We must not follow them in error. Poverty is certainly prominent among the proximate causes of abortion, but in absolutely no way is poverty—structural or individual—the root cause of abortion. There is no empirical or historical case that demonstrates that it is. While we do have an obligation to address poverty at the level of policy, law, and most importantly, in personal presence and service, this will not stop or significantly reduce abortion rates. Only on a secular and partisan view—one which requires a pseudointellectual reduction of the killing of innocents to a “symptom” of another social ill more easily addressed by one’s political worldview—does this even begin to make sense.

The historical and sociological data show that the cultural attack on the family and on sexual morality, and laws that basically enshrined this attack, most directly preceded and predicted the abortion explosion. This prolonged attack that began in the Garden of Eden continued the realm of ideas, particularly in the idea that natural realities of body and soul, and of faith and reason, must be separated if man is to make social and scientific progress. This led ultimately—and logically—to the supremely destructive error of thinking that sex and procreation could be separated without moral consequence. This lie was, of course, sold with other lies manifested in policies from secular sex “education” to no-fault divorce to free contraception as “health care,” to legalized abortion, and eventually to the idea that a court can redefine the most fundamental human institution, marriage.

The more these perverse ideas advanced, the more their advocates demanded that in order to sustain them, the state would need to be ever more powerful, ever more the agent of our solidarity in order to forestall the natural consequences of the rejection of nature and nature’s God. The state would be us, and we, the state. This is why the natural institutions had to go. The family had to be broken and the Church brought to heel, spared only to the extent that it supported the supremacy of the state.

Setting aside the secular left worldview and adopting the theological view in interpreting historical and social science data, one begins to see the true root cause manifested in the history of destructive ideas, revolutions, wars, and growth of an ever more powerful and hostile state. It is the rejection of the truth about the human person, in his temporal and eternal dimensions, and his identity as a fundamental unity of body and soul made in the image of his Creator. This error is based further back in the turn from God, the original sin into which we are all born, but from which we are released by baptism. Since sin remains a constant reality on earth, we are given the grace we need in the sacraments and the Word of God to return to him, and to bring others to him. Knowing who created us and how his intention is written into our very bodies and communities, we can build healthy families that raise healthy children, that support one another in good times and in bad, and that can create accountable, limited forms of government that respect the priority and freedom of intermediary and natural communities and institutions to care for those most in need. This is Catholic social doctrine in structure—solidarity and subsidiarity in a personalist frame, the goal being the true common good. This is how we address the true root causes of abortion—and, not coincidentally, the root cause of dehumanizing poverty.

You do not have to be a libertarian to say that you do not trust this government to be the first responders for mothers in crisis pregnancies. As a Christian you know you have a responsibility to care for those in need, which requires your sacrifice and your presence, not your abdication of responsibility to a government that requires that the Gospel be left out of its services to the vulnerable. You want those suffering in poverty to have the same advantages you have – stronger families, better education, and access to markets where they can use their creativity to productive ends that benefit their families and communities. You refuse to see “the poor” as some permanent “other” that it is your job to save through the government. You probably want a humble, accountable, and effective government ready to step in where lower level structures have failed, but you will not cede ever more power to the actual government we currently have even as it offends both solidarity and subsidiarity to the detriment of the common good.

Consider this an open invitation for the first serious attempt to present a positive historical and sociological case for the claims that poverty is the root cause of abortion, and that increased government social programs are the solution. Were this to be attempted, it should be considered a welcome development, an opportunity to discuss how best to end assaults on innocent born and unborn persons, and toward growing what is already a vast and diverse attempt to do so—the pro-life movement.

About Stephen Phelan 1 Article
Stephen Phelan is vice president of family initiatives for the St. John Paul II Foundation, based in Houston, Texas. He has produced three documentaries that have been broadcast on EWTN, and his articles have been published in First Things, Lay Witness Magazine, and other publications.

6 Comments

  1. Poverty though a factor is not what drives the world’s highest rates of abortion. Poverty is related incidentally to economics. The worlds greatest exporter and fastest growing economy China has over 9 million abortions per year. The next highest rates the US and Russia at 1.5 million per year are either on the upper tier of exporting nations [the US second Germany third] or are major industrialized nations as is Russia at 1.5 million abortions per year equal to the US. Germany’s rate is considered well over 100,000 per year and rising, is among the highest in Europe followed by other northern wealthier European nations. Following in overall stats is the International Planned Parenthood Federation with over 1 million. The shift from a largely religious oriented global populace influenced by Western values to a neo Marxist materialism with emphasis on economic power translated into higher quality of life is the driving force. That coupled with the despiritualization of human sexuality and trend toward eroticism. Human love now has little to do with commitment and children. Rather ease of life and pleasure are the dominant values. The only viable reversal to the growing deluge of murdering infants is spiritual conversion. The Catholic Church has the doctrine, message, personnel. It lacks the leadership. Vatican leadership is focused instead on climate control, immigration, equanimity of income and eradication of poverty, and most succinctly the devaluation of indissolubility of marriage and permanent family. A key factor in the sky rocketing global abortion rate.

  2. The following remarks are made with my knowing full well that they will seem meaningless, if not outrageous, to modern unbelieving minds, which sadly consists of those pretending to be within as well as those clearly outside the Church.

    The root cause of the “legalization” of the murder of the child in the womb is Satan and his demonic allies:

    “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
    – Ephesians 6:12

    The demons hate the Image of God in humanity. They hate God’s innocence as reflected in the snowy white innocence of the child in the womb, one of whom God became, and they hate God’s triune nature as reflected in gender-based human nature where the love between two persons bring forth a third, just as the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the love between the Father and the Son.

    The contemporary, murderous assault on humanity and on human nature itself being waged by the modern, militantly atheistic state can be understood in terms of a diabolical assault on the Image of God as reflected in human nature. This is why the main thrust of their godless social engineering is the murder of innocent children, the perversion of human nature and human marriage, and promoting infertility and the destruction of gender, all of which is “legitimized” by deceitful propaganda. Satan is indeed the father of lies and was a murderer from the start, and is obviously behind the modern atheistic state’s godless social engineering.

    That poverty causes abortion is an outrageous lie. Here is the reality:

    First, don’t take my word for it. Say a prayer asking the Holy Spirit for guidance, and then Google it up for yourselves. You will find that less than one percent of the adult population of the planet possesses almost half of the goods of the Earth for themselves, and that almost seventy-five percent of the adult population of the planet, while they and their children suffer the agony that comes from the most dire poverty, are attempting to make it on their share of less than two and one half percent of the goods of the Earth. You and I are members of the roughly twenty-five percent of the adult population of the planet that have a standard of living that is commensurate with human dignity; we do not possess outrageous, obscene wealth, and we do not live in dire poverty.

    How did humanity end up in this tragic situation? Well, apparently Christ’s temptation in the desert wasn’t the last time Satan showed someone all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, and said to them: “All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me.” And by their implementation of diabolical social engineering, they do indeed worship him as he demands.

    Here is how it works in more practical terms: The less than one percent, the globalists, corrupt the governments of the world, transforming them into subsidiaries of their multinational corporations that serve the globalist agenda and enact policies designed to increase the profits of their multinationals, instead of serving the legitimate interests of their own citizens. This, of course, creates massive poverty.

    The globalists have a fix for the poverty the created themselves: blatantly coercive where possible, and often abortifacient and disguised as vaccines, population control/extermination measures. In other words, the globalists unjustly redistribute the wealth of entire populations to themselves, and then attempt to exterminate those populations. They have done this in the third world are now aggressively going after the wealth of the populations of the developed nations. Their avarice knows no bounds. The twenty-five percent in the developed nations have some means left to resist them, and are doing so in what is commonly referred to as the “populist movement.” It is a movement the goal of which is to save the human race.

    So what do we do about this assault not only on Christianity, but on the human race, and on human nature itself? Christianity and humanity is in far more danger now than it was when Urban II called the first crusade after Islamic jihad had eradicated two-thirds of Christendom from the face of the Earth. Since that is the case the Church would now be more than justified in calling the faithful to take up arms, so it has no excuse for not at least telling Caesar he can have his tax exempt status back, and then leading the faithful in peaceful political action, possibly including non-violent civil disobedience like that of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity union, which eventually brought down the militantly atheistic Soviet Union. Not that involvement in politics should be standard operating procedure for the Church, just as Urban II’s call to arms was obviously not standard operating procedure for the Church, but was required at the time.

    The ultimate reason that the saving of humanity must be led by the Church is that that is the intention of its Founder. Deus Vult!

    When the Church doesn’t do this, it tends to undercut those leading the effort. If one isn’t doing what one should be doing, when it is being done by someone else, the temptation to insist that it doesn’t really need to be done can become overwhelming.

    • Here a few fixes for typos and editing failures in my previous post:

      The globalists have a fix for the poverty the created themselves

      should be

      The globalists have a fix for the poverty *they* created themselves

      = = =

      They have done this in the third world are now aggressively

      should be

      They have done this in the third world *and* are now aggressively

      = = =
      Christianity and humanity is in far more danger now than it was when Urban II called

      should be

      Christianity and humanity *are* in far more danger now than *they were* when Urban II called

    • Harry, thank you. Everything you say is good and true. Please write up a longer article and have it published here and in the National Catholic Register. You are more insightful and honest than is probably allowed…….
      God blesses you

  3. Harry I agree with a lot of what you said in your comment. But I think that the elites have become polytheistic. I’m a registered independent for voting because the political left is into the idolatry of government, the political right is into the idolatry of mammon, and the sex revolution is into self idolatry. You can’t walk around without tripping over someone’s Golden Calf. You can tell the idolaters by how quickly they adopt a HAL 9000 attitude about their chosen deity or deities. Roughly speaking we have the unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
    *
    Each of Christ’s three temptations in the wilderness concerned temporal power, either wielding it, or having access to it. Christ’s responses established that the spiritual takes priority over the temporal. I saw a video by a rabbi where he said that in the original language of the Old Testament the word gods in the First Commandment is the word elohim. He said that it can also be translated as the words judges or powers. In the three temptations Satan has a power fixation, as do the modern idolaters.
    *
    I don’t think that you have the image and likeness quite right. The parents are capable of begetting the child’s body, but only God can create an eternal soul. God is Three and God is One Trinitarian Godhead. I need to show what I’m talking about with crude drawings. I hope they come through in my comment. The image and likeness drawings are as follows:
    *
    1) The Trinitarian Godhead:
    *
    F
    / \
    S-HS
    *
    F-Father
    S-Son
    HS-Holy Spirit
    *
    2) Holy Matrimony:
    *
    TG
    / \
    H-W
    *
    TG-Trinitarian Godhead
    H-Husband(starting with Adam)
    W-Wife(starting with Eve)
    *
    3) The Alliance of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary:
    *
    TG
    / \
    C-BVM
    *
    TG-Trinitarian Godhead
    C-Christ as True Man (In Hypostatic Union with Christ as Son)
    BVM-Blessed Virgin Mary
    *
    Christ is the new Adam, King in the line of David, and Eternal High Priest.
    The Blessed Virgin Mary is the new Eve, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and Queen Mother.
    *
    4) Holy Orders:
    *
    TG
    / \
    P-CM
    *
    TG-Trinitarian Godhead
    P-Priest (In Persona Christi)
    CM-Holy Mother Church (The Church Militant)
    *
    5) Consecrated Women Religious:
    *
    TG
    / \
    C-CWR
    *
    TG-Trinitarian Godhead
    C-Christ as True Man (In Hypostatic Union with Christ as Son)
    CWR-Consecrated Women Religious (The brides of Christ)
    *
    There are similar diagrams for the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant that are like the one about Jesus and Mary that I will omit in the interest of brevity. I am including the Church drawings to show how the Church as a whole looks like the domestic Church of the family. Holy Orders is in the image and likeness of the Hypostatic Union.
    *
    If people want to keep God out of the bedroom, then they are saying that they want soulless children. The sex revolution’s relationship with God the Creator is on the rocks.

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