Wednesday, May 10, 2017
by Richard Storrow
Two op-eds appearing in the New York Times recently addressed the intersection of abortion and economics. Both develop their arguments around Bernie Sanders's recent appearances with abortion rights supporter Jon Ossof, Democratic candidate for Congress in Georgia, and abortion rights foe Heath Mello, a pro-life Democatic candidate for Omaha mayor. The seemingly contradictory optics these appearances create are concerning for progressives who fear that the Democratic Party, in trying to woo voters, may move reproductive rights to the back burner. They appear to be right. Democratic Party National Committee chair Thomas Perez has made clear that the party's focus must now be on economics instead of "social issues" like reproductive rights and abortion.
In Why Abortion Is an Economic Issue, Bryce Covert speaks out against the efforts of the Democratic Party to revive itself by divorcing issues of reproductive rights from issues of economics. "To pretend that these issues are different and that one can be abandoned for the other," he writes, "is disproved in countless women's lives." In The Problem with Linking Abortion and Economics, Lori Szala takes aim at the "enormous baggage" freighting the old saw that "women on the margins need abortion so that they can scramble up the economic ladder without children holding them back." The argument justifies eliminating beings "who impede our economic progress," and urges that abortion is a simple solution to deep, systemic inequalities.
Szala is undoubtedly correct that abortion is about more than money. But her employer's zealous anti-abortion stance and the personal story that takes up almost half of her editorial prevent her argument from gaining much traction. The view that taking an economic view of abortion ultimately means we have agreed to kill those who impede our economic progress reduces a very complex issue to something unforgivably simplistic if not incendiary. The story she tells about how she resisted a "chorus of pessimism" when she became pregnant in high school and somehow managed as a single mother to rise in the ranks of an investment firm is certainly an impressive account of luck and pluck, but it is hardly a realistic model for most women in poverty in a society where political warfare on reproductive rights and public assistance is the order of the day. Furthermore, in a society that devotes mountains of resources to putting abortion providers out of business, abortion cannot accurately be described as an "easy way out."
Szala sees the solution as "community commitment" to help pregnant women "find jobs, enter substance abuse treatment programs, regain their children from foster care, find housing, pay utility bills and sign up for government benefits." This is a noble call to action. But Szala neglects to explain who will underwrite this "community commitment" or what government benefits we can expect to exist under a government committed to dismantling them. It's also not clear what her organization is doing to change government policies that make it harder for pregnant women in poverty to choose an alternative to abortion. At the very least, we should hear her ideas on how to redirect money aimed at shutting down abortion clinics toward women in need.
At the end of the day, Szala believes private donors will make the difference. It's heartening that she knows selfless private donors committed to helping pregnant women in poverty. But she names only three who truly went above and beyond during her over seven years of working for organizations that help women find alternatives to abortion. Can we really expect an outpouring of generosity in the current climate of victim-blaming and mother-shaming? Perhaps Szala is depending on Trump's trickle-down economic policies to coax more charitably minded donors out of the woodwork. No news as yet on how that's working out.
Covert has the more convincing argument. Women who are denied abortion services are three times more likely to fall into poverty than are women in comparable financial situations who can obtain the procedure. If a woman in a precarious financial situation chooses to raise her child, there is little public assistance available to help her do so, making it unlikely she will have the wherewithal to follow through on any educational plans. "[A]ny woman who has had to decide whether she could afford to keep a baby," he notes, "will most likely be able to tell you that economics is deeply embedded in her choice." Covert's views, not Szala's, square with the reality that in the current political climate, women in poverty, or on their way there, remain the biggest losers.