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.