In the wake of the leaked draft of the Supreme Court majority opinion on Dobbs vs. Jackson, the divisions among the American public caused by the issue of abortion seem to be widening more than ever. Although the overturning of Roe vs. Wade would undoubtedly count as a victory for the pro-life movement, the intensifications of national divisions around this issue – and the response of certain states like California – indicates that the fight for the unborn still has a long way to go before any final victory can be declared. It’s a good time for pro-life advocates, and Catholics especially, to consider just how extensive are the transformations that must occur going forward in order to really secure protection for unborn life.
First, it is crucial to recognize what an integral role abortion plays in upholding the present economic system, which we might label “neoliberal capitalism.” As Matthew Walther, editor of the Catholic magazine The Lamp, has recently noted in an opinion for The New York Times, it is no accident that Roe vs. Wade was ruled at the very same moment in history when America was beginning to undergo a profound economic transformation:
American society as we know it today came into being during the 1970s, in the wake of Roe, amid rising crime rates, stagflation and the dismantling of the Fordist economic consensus in favor of deregulation and the breakup of stable, quasi-nationalized monopolies. It is not possible to conceive of our present way of life — the decline of heavy and textile manufacturing and the rise of the service economy, financialization, the collapse of traditional familial and other social structures, the subsuming of virtually every facet of our existence into digital technologies — in the absence of the estimated 63 million abortions that have been performed in America since 1973.
The upshot of Mr. Walther’s whole column was that pro-life advocates should be ready to accept what might be the catastrophic economic consequences of the eradication of abortion from American society. It is possible to argue that an abortion ban would lead to such things as “more single mothers and more births to teenage mothers, increased strain on Medicaid and other welfare programs, higher crime rates, a less dynamic and flexible work force, an uptick in carbon emissions, lower student test scores and goodness knows what else.”
To this list one could add: a sharp decline in the national GDP, and a sharp decline in labor force participation – particularly the participation of women. For any honest advocate for the unborn, the protection of those lives is worth all of this.
Indeed, on the very same day that Walther published his column, the Secretary of the Treasury, Ms. Janet Yellen, testified before the Senate Banking Committee that overturning Roe vs. Wade would be damaging to the US economy in exactly this way: “I believe that eliminating the rights of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades . . . In many cases, abortions are of teenage women, particularly low-income and often Black, who aren’t in a position to be able to care for children, have unexpected pregnancies, and it deprives them of the ability often to continue their education to later participate in the workforce.”
Yellen’s testimony is indeed confirmed by several empirical studies on the connection between abortion and labor-force participation. A 2017 paper published by the Center for American Progress found that “Women living in states with a better reproductive health care climate—including . . . the availability of state-supported public funding for medically necessary abortions—have higher earnings and face less occupational segregation compared with women living in states that have more limited reproductive health care access.” Furthermore, “Women in states with robust reproductive health care climates also are less likely to work part time, giving them more opportunity for higher earnings; non-wage benefits such as access to paid sick days and paid leave; and greater promotion opportunities.”
None of this is particularly surprising. Janet Yellen’s argument and the empirical data on which it is based are familiar to anybody who has heard the standard “women’s rights” defense of abortion: that it liberates women and enables them to compete with men, as their equals, in the demanding world of the labor market. It gives women an opportunity to achieve the same sense of success and self-worth that men have traditionally pursued, as long as capitalism has existed. In this way, abortion is an important aid in the pursuit of gender equality, a weapon in the arsenal of social justice.
However, from a Catholic point of view, these arguments seem misguided – and not because Catholicism is chauvinistic or misogynistic, but because the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching has always maintained a deep skepticism towards the capitalist economy, which abortion evidently plays a large role in upholding. As capitalism has progressed towards what is now known as “neoliberalism,” concurrent with an increase in female labor participation as well as a dramatic increase in abortions, it is obvious that the Church’s skepticism towards capitalism has not waned, but intensified. The Church has never condoned the system in which not only men, but women too, are exploited in order to bolster the wealth of a global oligarchic class.
Feminist ideology, as it has been typically formulated, seems to amount to no more than the effort of millions of women to persuade themselves to come to terms with their own exploitation at the hands of capitalists. Or worse, it is the effort of capital itself to persuade women to be at peace with their own exploitation. In a similar way, the practices and operations which women now willingly undergo in order to “empower” themselves in the workplace are no more than ways of making their exploitation more tolerable. Or again, from the point of view of capital, these practices enhance women’s “labor power” (to use classical Marxist terminology), making them more available for exploitation. In today’s neoliberal system, abortion is foremost among these practices: it is a tool for the enhancement of female labor power.
And yet, while neoliberalism has coincided with the welcoming of women into the labor force, it has also brought with it a massive wave of deindustrialization throughout the West. The economy into which women entered was no longer a really productive economy, but one increasingly dominated by the service sectors and characterized by a bloated finance industry. These industries, although they were highly profitable, actually contributed little of real value to the economy. Thus, women entered a labor force where labor itself was becoming increasingly superfluous, having no purpose except to uphold the skyrocketing profits of the capitalist class. In other words, the majority of working women – and working men – are doing entirely useless work that, were it not for the existence of a deeply unequal distribution of wealth and power, they would not need to be doing in order to live meaningful and flourishing lives.
The liberalization of abortion with Roe vs. Wade directly supported this transformation. Millions of unborn children have been sacrificed for the economic goal of producing . . . not much, except perhaps an illusory sense of self-esteem attached to being a proud member of the exploited labor force. At the same time, this also means that the prevailing economic system is probably not productive enough to support the millions of new consumers who would be added to the economy if abortion was banned. (This is the basis – entirely socially constructed – for arguments in favor of abortion as population control.) If prevailing social relations are not changed — i.e. if capitalists do not cut back on superfluous and unnecessary jobs and begin to reinvest in domestic manufacturing instead — an abortion ban will almost certainly mean greater poverty and immiseration for the bulk of working class families.
The consequence to be drawn from all of this is that, precisely for the sake of protecting unborn lives, a radical transformation of the prevailing economic system is in order.
A pro-life political program should also seek to reindustrialize the American economy by massively boosting domestic manufacturing and economic productivity. But in addition, it should include the construction of new family-oriented welfare institutions or social ownership structures that can more fairly and directly distribute the gains of higher productivity to families. To quote Mr. Walther again, “opponents of abortion should commit ourselves to the most generous and humane provisions for mothers and children (paid family leave, generous child benefits, direct income subsidies for stay-at-home mothers, single-payer health care) without being Pollyannaish.”
To be sure, no solution is going to be totally fool-proof. No matter what the underlying economic conditions, the cultural and ideological sediment left over by neoliberal capitalism is deep-rooted, and an abortion ban will therefore be very likely to provoke a violent reaction from many sectors of American society. Pro-lifers, and especially Catholics, should be ready to accept whatever catastrophic consequences might follow from the eradication of abortion, in any circumstances.
But they should also consider the possibility that those consequences – poverty, violence, scarcity, and whatever else – might be at least mitigated by a profound transformation of the present economic conditions that make abortion seem to be a desirable choice for so many women.
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