If we put women back to work, lifted them out of poverty, and funded social services they rely on, fewer women would turn to abortion.
It seems the cat’s finally out of the bag these days: conservatives aren’t just concerned with saving the babies from abortions when it comes to reproductive rights. They are now outspoken about being against access to contraception — and some of them have even come out against non-procreative sex. Women’s rights activists have long warned that they were coming for our birth control; now it’s hard to deny they were right all along.
One big clue this whole time has been a simple fact: if conservatives are so hell-bent on preventing abortions, one of the best things they can do is support family planning services and access to contraception. Yet the last time we saw an openly pro-family planning Republican was the ’80s, when George H.W. Bush was in office. Meanwhile, all Republican 2012 candidates have signed personhood pledges that endanger many forms of contraception, Santorum himself has said birth control is bad, and I’ve lost track of how many times Republicans have tried to defund Planned Parenthood, which supplies contraception to low-income women. But as Irin Carmon laid out, the connection between increasing access to contraception and lowering abortion rates is very clear.
There’s another clue that this isn’t about saving the babies. It’s the blind eye conservatives have turned to the economic factors that are leading more women to turn to abortion. A new report, “Abortionomics: When Choice is a Necessity,” shows that “lower incomes and rising unemployment are affecting Americans’ choices about pregnancies,” and in the recession abortion rates, particularly among poor women, are on the rise. Stephanie Poggi of the National Network of Abortion Funds says, “A lot of women are… telling us, ‘I’ve already put off paying my rent, my electric bill; I’m cutting back on my food.’ They’ve run through all the options.” In lean times, a child can seem like an overwhelming expense.
It’s not terribly shocking that when incomes are strapped, millions are out of a job, and many are falling into poverty, women are thinking twice about having a child. Raising a kid in this country is not a cheap undertaking. For a two-parent couple making under $57,600, the USDA estimates the costs of raising a young child to be $10,950 a year. The total cost of taking care of that child until he or she turns 18 averaged $226,920 in 2010, up nearly 40 percent over the last decade. As one woman in the report puts it, “I totally cannot afford another child. I knew immediately [upon learning about her pregnancy] what I had to do.”
Those without a job don’t have the income to cover these kinds of expenses. Over 12 million people are unemployed right now; almost 6 million of those are women. One unemployed woman in the report who chose abortion says, “At this time I am not working and neither is my partner… We are unable to support a child under our present circumstances.” If Republicans are concerned about reversing the rise in abortion rates, they need to focus on putting people back to work making decent pay. Putting women to work in large part means spending money at the state level to keep them on public payrolls.
But even after women are back at work, we still have to wrestle with a big factor: the high number of women living in poverty who seek abortions. One study found that 69 percent of women having abortions in 2008 made incomes lower than 200 percent of the poverty line, while women in that income category make up only 35 percent of the overall population. In fact, the report says, “while abortion rates generally have declined over the last 20 years…rates have increased among low-income women.” And a lot of women have been falling into that category lately. Recent Census numbers show that women’s poverty rate rose to 14.5 percent in 2010, the highest since 1993. Their “extreme poverty rate” — those whose income is less than half of the federal poverty line — is at 6.3 percent, the highest on record.
The link between addressing poverty and lowering the abortion rate may be uncomfortable for conservatives like Mitt “I don’t care about the very poor” Romney, but it’s one of the most important factors. As the report notes, “low income women often have difficulty affording preventive contraception and sometimes address this problem by reducing frequency or dosage use, thereby increasing the risk of unintended pregnancy in the group most likely to decide they are unable to afford to support an additional dependent.”
And lastly, the point conservatives may enjoy the least: we need to increase spending on social services. As the report puts it, “As funding for social services declines, more women may be expected to determine that economic constraints make abortion the only viable option.” The report is mostly talking about services that provide access to contraception. But there are other services that we’re cutting back on that will impact the decision to have a child. For example, 37 states pulled back on child care support in 2010 due to tight budgets. Yet the average cost of full-time care ranges from $3,600 to $18,200 annually. That’s a huge part of the cost of raising a child, but we’re giving parents less support to pay for it.
Women choose to terminate pregnancies for all sorts of reasons and should be able to access abortion care when they do. Tight budgets aren’t the only reason to choose not to have a child. But economic factors that prevent families from having children should be high on conservatives’ list. If we ease those families’ financial situations, they may not have to turn to terminating a pregnancy. But instead conservatives are fighting access to contraceptives, cutting off funding for services that would make life easier for women living in poverty, and blocking job creation policies.
Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.