October 15, 2004
Abortion and poverty

Joe Cecil and NJL are both citing an article in Sojourners arguing that reducing poverty will reduce abortion. Among the stats cited: two-thirds of women who have abortions say that they can't afford a child.

Statements like that always bring to mind a report I read a long time ago. At the time I donated to a charity that sent me newsletters about what they were up to in various parts of the world, including Mozambique. Mozambique had a huge number of orphans from its long civil war, and the NGOs were worried they'd have a huge crisis of homeless children on their hands. Yet it didn't really happen, the newsletter said, at least not on the expected scale. The country's kin network was so strong that most of the children were adopted by their nearest surviving relations, even if they were fairly distant.

I remember thinking about the differences between America and Africa in that regard. No doubt, most of those adopted children faced a life that would not meet minimal standards of care in the U.S. Sheltering in homemade huts, getting little medical care or formal education, working in the fields from a young age. If we Americans had such low standards we could probably infinitely adopt children too, I thought to myself.

My point is that "able to afford a child" is a moving target. No doubt nearly all U.S. women who have abortions could afford to raise children by Mozambican standards. But thanks to our high standard of living, we expect a lot more. In fact, anyone in the U.S. discovered to be raising children by African peasant standards would find them removed to foster care. So if society became wealthier as a whole, had universal health care and all that, it might reduce the number of abortions. But it might simply move the standard of childbearing again, to the point where still more women would consider themselves too poor to have children.

This does not mean that I don't think abortion and poverty are related, or that we shouldn't help out poor mothers and children. I agree with Dr. Stan that churches that preach against abortion should be doing way more to offer alternatives to it. But there's no getting around the basic moral issue. At some point you have to say, human life is inherently good, so we should support its continuance even in way-sub-optimal conditions. After all, if our ancestors hadn't done that, none of us would be here.

Posted by Camassia at October 15, 2004 11:13 AM | TrackBack

Of course human life is inherently good, and of course we should support its continuance -- I don't think anyone disagrees with that moral statement. I think that reasonable people disagree over how best to do that. The current pro-life legislative approach hasn't worked: laws have been passed, they've been ruled unconstitutional; courts have been packed, but Roe v. Wade still stands. It's time for the pro-life world to realize that this isn't working, and that a new approach has to happen. I think we all need to start discussing what that new approach should be instead of using this as an issue to divide America. Not that you're using it that way, I'm speaking in general terms.

Posted by: Nathan on October 15, 2004 09:29 PM

True, few would disagree with that statement as such. But the assumption lying under a lot of these abortions, it seems, is that a life isn't worth living if it's going to be too hard. I don't think you can reduce abortion without countering that idea, since "too hard" is such a subjective and redefinable standard.

I agree with the second part of your statement, and in fact the point I'm groping toward here is that you really need both morality and compassion to deal with abortion. It's kind of like theft: poverty certainly drives people to steal, but few would claim you can do without the moral taboo on stealing if you just reduce poverty.

Posted by: Camassia on October 16, 2004 07:42 AM

I agree with you that it is both a problem of morality and economics, and neither Dr. Stassen nor I were trying to excuse abortions, both of us being pro-life. However, the fact remains that there were fewer abortions happening in better economic times with more social protection programs. There may be some degree of relativity involved in decisions to have them, but certainly the evidence shows that there are also fixed factors.
Another thing, I think that the strong kin network that you mentioned shows evidence that while the poor in this nation may be better off than the poor in Mozambique in some ways, they are not in others. Poor people united, in this case through family ties, are inherently better off than poor people left to themselves. The fact is, in Mozambique there are people to help you, feed you and house you, when you are in trouble. They may not have much, but they have something. In America, however, for many people there is no one to help them when they are in trouble. Largely I think it is the difference between a primarily rural and a primarily urban society.

Posted by: NJL on October 18, 2004 02:09 AM

My brother married a woman from Chad, and there is a dramatic cultural difference between there and here in how much family members are expected to help each other out and share the wealth.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on October 21, 2004 08:04 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?