Republicans across the United States cast the supreme court’s decision last month that allowed states to ban abortion as a victory for “life”. Left unsaid was the quality of life that families and mothers set to be left dealing with unplanned pregnancies might have.
For years, the Republican party has pushed to ban a procedure that is mostly sought out by people who are poor, while showing much less enthusiasm for efforts to permanently expand the country’s social safety net. Critics have labeled the party’s stance as caring a lot politically about unborn fetuses, but losing interest in them when they are born as American citizens.
Twenty-six states are now expected to ban abortion entirely following the supreme court’s ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and following November’s midterm elections, Republicans could gain control of one or both houses of Congress, and make gains in state legislatures.
That dynamic could now give many more Americans a close-up look at what the party’s policies mean for women and families dealing with any wave of unplanned pregnancies, and there are signs Republicans are worried about what they will see.
“Over the years, we have written on federal policies that we consider ‘pro-life’ that support pregnant women, not just policies that restrict abortion. This line of thinking is no longer a luxury of thought for pro-lifers like us. It is an obligation of pro-life advocacy in the future as we enter what will be a dynamic, uncertain, and uneven state landscape for years to come,” Republican operatives Mark Rodgers and Kiki Bradley wrote in the National Review last month, in an essay calling for the party to get behind policies like paid family leave and tax credits for families with children.
“A number of leaders understand that our expressions of concern for life would ring hollow without our movement’s advocacy of a support system for pregnant women and their babies.”
Already, there are signs of some Republican lawmakers moving to address these concerns. Republicans senators have proposed two bills expanding aspects of the government social safety net, and lawmakers may end up considering them before the year is out and the new Congress convenes in 2023.
“There’s certainly, I think, at least at the intellectual level, a recognition that we need to be approaching these issues in a fresh way,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia professor affiliated with the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, both right-leaning thinktanks.
Yet opponents of the supreme court’s decision in Dobbs can’t help but contrast the fervency within the party for outlawing abortion with their relative historic coolness towards programs that could help people affected by the bans.
“Republicans claim to be for small government – but where it comes to abortion they are for big government. Traditional views about women – and disrespect for poor women – may blind Republicans to these contradictions,” said Reva Siegel, a Yale Law School professor who wrote a brief unsuccessfully urging the supreme court to overturn the Mississippi law at issue in the Dobbs case.
“The Republican party now has its chance to show the nation what pro-life means. In many states now banning abortion, its policies are more concerned with control than care. I hope the party can change course, but I have yet to see a Republican jurisdiction that has developed a philosophy of social services even remotely appropriate to accompany laws requiring pregnant women to give birth.”
The downfall of national abortion rights in America comes as the US remains an outlier among its wealthy peers in terms of social services. It famously has no national health insurance program, and is the only wealthy country not to offer paid family leave, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Data shows that women who seek abortions tend to be the ones who could stand to benefit the most from social services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 75 percent of American abortion patients are poor and 60 percent already have a child.
State bans already on the books could lead to an additional 75,000 birth per-year, Caitlin Knowles Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College, predicted, and the costs of an unplanned pregnancy have been shown to be substantial. A University of California, San Francisco study found that women who wanted an abortion but could not get one saw their household poverty rates increase for at least four years as compared to women who were able to access the procedure, and also struggled to pay for necessities like food and transportation for years after.
America is also a uniquely deadly place to give birth. The Commonwealth Fund found that in 2018, the United States’s ratio of deaths for live birth was more than twice that of most other wealthy countries.
Meanwhile, 12 states still have not expanded Medicaid health insurance coverage for poor people offered under the Affordable Care Act, and of these, only Kansas and North Carolina are among those not immediately banning abortion.
At the state level, there have been moves by lawmakers to address these disparities. The Republican-led legislatures in Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, for instance, have pushed to expand Medicaid coverage to women after they gave birth, even as they’ve declined to take part in the program’s expansion. South Carolina and Georgia recently enacted legislation giving state employees paid parental leave.
But much of the most powerful social welfare legislation comes from Congress, where progress has been uneven. In 2021, Democrats pushed through a massive spending package that included a provision sending monthly checks to almost all families with children, which was credited with slashing child poverty.
President Joe Biden proposed continuing it in his massive Build Back Better proposal to revamp social services and fight climate change, but the package won no Republican support and died amid infighting with Democrats.
Samuel Hammond, director of social policy at the Niskanen Center, said Republicans will now be under pressure to pass legislation to aid families and children by the same groups that wanted them to overturn the 49-year old Roe v Wade ruling that allowed abortion nationwide: social conservatives.
“The kind of bargain they had was we will pass our tax cuts and deregulations and you will get conservative court justices,” Hammond said. “And now that Roe has been repealed, you can’t put Amy Coney Barrett on the court twice.”
In the past weeks, Senate Republicans have announced legislation to expand aid to families, casting their proposals as “pro-life” responses to the end of Roe. Florida’s Marco Rubio has published a plan that would allow families to pull from their social security benefits to fund paid family leave, expand a tax credit meant to help families with children, while also allowing religious groups to play a greater role in federal social service programs.
In a press release filled with endorsements from anti-abortion groups, three senators announced a bill that would give families $350 each month for a young child and $250 for a child attending school. The proposal is similar to the child tax credit that Biden unsuccessfully tried to extend, but requires families to earn a certain amount to be eligible and, Hammond said, would be less effective at slashing poverty.
“You want to make sure you’re supporting families that are making some effort to support themselves,” Wilcox said.
“You don’t want to be promoting policies that lock in support for a model of family life that is detached from work and from marriage, which are of course two of the key avenues for economic progress even in the 21st century.”
While the Democratic-led Congress has been deadlocked over social policy for months, Hammond predicted the proposal from the three Republican lawmakers could be worked into a larger tax bill that has to be passed by the year end, giving Republicans an opportunity to show that they want to help families.
“Where they’ve always pulled their punches is on these more proactive social policies,” Hammond said. “I think this is now the window for the Republicans to put their stamp on a major extension to the child credit in a way that’s more generous to parents and make good on this outreach to parents and this Christian conservative minority.”