There is a case to be made for family planning and access to abortion services as a way to improve the lives of poor women. If you lean liberal in your politics, you’ll probably be comfortable with the arguments advanced by Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell (published yesterday morning in the Times-Dispatch). If you lean to the right politically, you’ll probably find her loftier-than-thou attitude — “America has decided: Sex is for rich people” — and her inaccurate swipes at conservatives — “pundits [refer] to advocates of affordable birth control as ‘sluts’ — to be so off-putting that you’re likely to reject the nuggets of sound reasoning buried in her column. But, then, Rampell isn’t writing to conservatives, she’s writing to liberals.
I’m a libertarian/conservative writing to conservatives, so I shall endeavor to make a case for family planning and abortion services that most conservatives will find palatable. (I know I’ll never convert right-to-life conservatives who oppose abortion under nearly all circumstances, so I won’t even try.)
Between government welfare programs and not-for-profit programs, American society devotes trillions of dollars to ameliorate the condition of the poor. Millions of poor Americans manage to surmount the disadvantageous circumstances of their birth, get an education and rise into the middle class. Yet American society has made very little progress in eradicating poverty over the past 50 years. Why is that? I believe that the root cause is demographic.
As I noted two weeks ago in my column, “The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools,” low-income women bear 10% to 15% more children than women in higher income categories, and they have their children at younger ages with the result that a 36-year-old woman in a lower-income setting can become a grandmother by the time a college-educated, career-oriented woman becomes a mother. Thus, the progeny of poor women, who are financially and culturally less equipped to form stable, two-parent households conducive to academic learning and the inculcation of values required to be successful in the knowledge economy, tend to be over-represented in the next generation of children. Likewise, the social problems endemic to the American brand of poverty — out-of-wedlock birth, substance abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of school, etc. — are transmitted to the next generation at a higher rate.
There are two ways to deal with this problem. One way is to ramp up education and social welfare spending in the hope that politicians and bureaucrats can figure out how to improve upward social mobility. If more poor people rise into the middle class, we might hope to conquer poverty in four or five generations. The track record of this approach has been none too encouraging, however. And given the parlous condition of government finances these days, the “spend mo’ money” approach is unaffordable.
The other approach is to encourage poor young women to delay childbirth until they can complete at least a high school education, attain stable job prospects and, perhaps, even marry. As Rampell notes, more than half of all pregnancies are unintended — 70% for single women in their 20s. (I would conjecture that the percentage of unintended pregnancies is even higher for single women in their teens.) In other words, pregnancy is not something that most young, unwed mothers seek.
Rampell avers that government spending on family planning offers a huge return on investment. “In 2010, every $1 invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they didn’t want saved $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures.” I would add that the ROI probably would be a lot higher if other forms of welfare support and social services were included.
Investing in family planning, to my mind, is a no brainer. Abortion is a more more complex issue. I oppose late-stage abortion except when the mother’s life is in danger but I see early-term abortion as a less undesirable outcome than bringing an unwanted child into the world. I acknowledge that others will disagree. But I look at the scourge of the American brand of poverty — particularly the pathological form it has taken in the United States with widespread family breakdown, child abuse and child neglect — and I see family planning and abortion services as the only way out.
Why not teach abstinence? Teaching abstinence is fine. The longer teenagers wait before they become sexually active, the better. But let’s not kid ourselves — I actually agree with Rampell on this — we’re fighting against human nature. The number one thing on teenagers’ minds is sex. If we count on abstinence alone, we’re going to lose this battle. Society, preferably through the mechanism of non-profit organizations, needs to provide birth control to poor kids. If evangelical Christians find the idea morally reprehensible, I would invite them (a) to ponder the relative ineffectiveness of the abstinence strategy in environments where no one is practicing it, and (b) redouble their efforts to teach abstinence to their own children.
Most conservatives I know are deeply troubled by the cancerous spread of a severely dysfunctional sub-culture of poverty and the misery it engenders among the children born to it. Would they prefer to pay higher taxes to support the children of poor women who became pregnant by accident, or would they prefer to give those women access to birth control and/or early-stage abortion services so they could avoid having those children in the first place? It’s an easy choice for me, and I suspect is is for many conservatives.