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Opinion: The protection of unborn lives requires systemic change

Precisely for the sake of protecting unborn lives, a radical transformation of the prevailing economic system is in order.

(Image: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash.com)

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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About Jonathan Culbreath 3 Articles
Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a site dedicated to the recovery of Catholic social teaching.

5 Comments

  1. There is no “good” which can be attributed to first degree murder, which exactly describes abortion. Let’s get that straight, first of all.

    But, blaming “capitalism” seems tendentious, at best. Why not retreat in time and understand the promotion of contraception as the initial drive to impose abortion on our culture. To that can be added the breakdown in the US educational system, documented (initially) so well by John Taylor Gatto. Then “no fault divorce” was so successful at destroying the family. All of the “faults” of capitalism can be traced to the deterioration of our political system, the denial of personal responsibility, and yes, our belief in God. Without His commandments, we are savages.

    It would be good to differentiate between capitalism and greed. Capitalism is neutral, greed is not. There is no usable alternative to capitalism, which has raised the standard of living across the world. But we must not confuse the immense benefits of a capitalistic society with the sins of the hoarders and spendthrifts, nor be “guided” by the direction of the elite.

    We look to a “better” world in a society that has deteriorated to prove the effect of Original Sin. Until we return to what is called the “American Trinity”,
    E pluribus Unum
    In God we trust
    Liberty
    we have no reason to blame any one or any system for our horrendous present situation. We are responsible for what happens today; us, you and me, everyone. We all bear responsibility for the present condition of our country. That condition will not change without our personal efforts, our repentance for our sins and our promise to live reputable lives.

    Inanimate systems have not caused our decline in culture. We have. As Pogo (Walt Kelly) pointed out so well, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  2. You are entirely correct. Evil is always personal, never systemic. It can never be engineered out of the human condition. But the author makes some valid observations of how evil forces morph their way through changing sociological attitudes. What we must never lose sight of is what many in the post VII Church have lost sight of, the permanent imperfectability of the human condition, least we fall into the same temptations for grand scale utopian social engineering projects rather than the unglamorous call for personal evangelical witness and personalist works of charity necessary to offer Christian hope.

  3. Thanks for the emphasis on how big the problems are.

    But is the problem capitalism or industrial society in general? In a technological society in which capital investment and rigorously defined procedures vastly increase productivity the logic of the system always sacrifices humanity to the machine. We become human resources rather than human beings.

    That’s true regardless of who owns the capital. Communist countries have been more inhumane than capitalist ones. How do you make people who run things act at odds with the biases of their position in the system to which they have given their lives?

    You have to get them to sacrifice economic and technical considerations to human considerations. But how do you do that in a cosmopolitan society in which religious and cultural articulations of what it is to be human can have very little effect? People talk about integralism, but for that to work you’d first have to convert if not the whole world then at least a predominant part of the global ruling classes.

    The nature of our ruling classes makes that seem impossible. I think that’s the reason for the interest in various forms of localism like the Benedict Option.

  4. Speaking of “systemic change,” it might just be that rather than economics, the underlying problem (pun intended) is much deeper, cultural and moral, as in casual sex disconnected from marriage, whatever that is.

  5. “Or worse, it is the effort of capital itself to persuade women to be at peace with their own exploitation.”

    There have been people in high places who have suggested the true reasons behind feminism. It might be a part of a depopulation agenda.

    One “elite” said that feminism was about increasing the taxes to the federal government, destroying the family, and promoting the state indoctrination of children.

    The truth is that feminism is a part of Satan’s plan to promote sin. It has made marriage too risky – and, if “attempted,” likely unhappy – which for most will lead to mortal sins against the Sixth Commandment (e.g. “self-abuse”).

    Also, it purposefully seems to encourage ugliness in women (depopulation mechanism?). “Man-short” (purple) haircuts, being heavy, and wearing tattoos (a sin – mutilation) appear to be typical of feminists.

    The push for “equality” between men and women has a subtle effect of utterly destroying the natural ordering between men and women. Men are emasculated and “demoted” from their rightful headship. Women act up due to unopposed sin and partly as a subconscious method of inducing the men to be the heads which they are meant to be. Since the men – because of feminism – almost never see the errors of their ways or are too cowardly (e.g. because of the threat of “divorce”) their marriages will be fraught with issues – which might also lead to “divorce.”

    Another part of “the equation” is to give TPTB an easy way of unjustly getting rid of men in power. This is achieved through the totalitarian and unjust regime of “sexual harassment.” It is almost guaranteed that men who aren’t liked by TPTB will be – almost certainly dishonestly – accused at some point of sexual harassment. Thus, the possible/probable scandalizing (i.e. flirting) women who are pushed by feminism into the workplace are traps/minefields laid for any man to be used later as a weapon should he upset TPTB. He will be fired so fast for the slightest of “advances” in response to subtle seduction or merely friendliness, and it is possibly likely that he will find it difficult to obtain a position similar to the one that he was unjustly fired from.

    I personally have observed that almost all judges in my area are (feminist?) women. This is suspicious. It is likely that this has been accomplished by design.

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