The Bible is full of mystifying tales — whales swallow men, valleys fill with dry bones, water turns into wine — but on the subject of children, it is relatively clear. Far clearer, in fact, than it is on the subject of abortion. “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus told the disciples. “Suffer” here implies a form of patience: He is telling the disciples to let children come to him in the name of spiritual well-being. But the word suffer has other meanings as well. Most commonly, it denotes pain. If the Christian right gets what it wants, a country without Roe v. Wade, the children will suffer indeed.
With the Supreme Court poised to end the constitutional right to abortion, abortion won’t vanish from the country. Nor will the children produced appear magically in adoptive homes, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett implied during oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case challenging Roe. “Why don’t the safe-haven laws take care of that problem?” she asked. In a draft opinion leaked to Politico, Justice Samuel Alito asserts that “women are not without electoral or political power,” as if the right to vote nullifies a right to bodily autonomy. What will happen instead is that women in states that ban or limit abortion will have to travel greater and greater distances to access the procedure. Children will be born, just as the Christian right wanted, but what kind of country will they inherit? The answers don’t make pleasant reading.
“Of 41 nations ranked on child poverty,” UNICEF listed the U.S. fourth from the bottom, the Washington Post reported in 2020, far below countries such as Iceland and Denmark. The child-poverty rate increased further during COVID, with the burden falling heaviest on Black and Latino children and children in female-headed households. “The United States is very unique in the sense of the amount of wealth that it has, while also having such a high rate of child poverty,” says Kercena Dozier, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund New York. “Some of the research that I’ve been doing has found a correlation between wealth and income inequality and also child poverty in this nation. We are experiencing record levels of income inequality and wealth inequality that are impacting families’ ability to get out of poverty.”
Dozier cites a number of contributing factors, including the stagnant federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and costs of living that are outpacing family income, exacerbated by today’s high inflation. “And so what you tend to find is that families are spending more than they should, more than they can, in order to be able to keep a home over their head,” she says. “That trickles down to a family’s ability to buy clothes or family’s ability to have sufficient amounts of food in the home.” The chain continues: Families get evicted and enter the shelter system. Many low-income families that need housing assistance don’t get it owing to a scarcity of assistance. “Another issue is the cost of child care,” Dozier says. “What tends to happen is that families can’t afford it or they have to make the hard choice: Should I quit my job and just keep my kid at home?”
Families face difficult choices, and conservatives aren’t ready with answers. Anti-abortion proponents have invested little time in describing the world they’d build for children. In a December interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion nonprofit Susan B. Anthony List remained studiously vague on policy beyond abortion. “There are needs of women that we have to meet, and there are more children being born whose needs and their mothers’ needs must be addressed,” she said. People who are anti-abortion, she added, “have a responsibility to serve the needs of women and children as we pass ambitious laws.” Dannenfelser didn’t provide much in the way of detail, saying only that her organization “has seven points of need for women and children — triggers for why they have abortions.” Gaps of some kind will be filled. “We make sure there’s child care in the first few years of that child’s life that’s cheap or free,” she added. Even in Dannenfelser’s ideal world, however, outcomes would vary wildly from state to state, and that would in turn abandon families at the tender mercy of Republican legislators. “There is not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the law in any state or how the needs of women will be met,” she said, a statement that leaves much up to chance.
Nevertheless, Dannenfelser’s answers are likely sufficient for many in her movement. Certainly, legislation appears to bear this out: In Republican states, anti-abortion bills have not been accompanied by universal-child-care programs or attempts to strengthen the social safety net. At the federal level, Republican abortion opponents also tend to oppose welfare spending, the expanded child-care tax credit, and universal paid leave. Democrats planned a “toddler takeover,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned in December, a reference to the Build Back Better Act’s day-care provisions. Better to be born into poverty than to be killed in the womb, anti-abortion proponents say, but that’s a dodge, a way to avoid reckoning with the world they’ve helped build. Children are suffering, and if Roe is overturned, more will suffer still.
They will not be the only ones to suffer, though: The fates of children and their parents are linked. Dr. Diana Greene Foster, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of The Turnaway Study, has found that low-income women can fall deeper into poverty when they are denied an abortion due to gestational limits on the procedure. The study found, among other results, that women who are denied abortions are more likely to “stay in contact with violent partners,” an outcome that placed them and their children in danger. Their existing children were over three times as likely to live below the federal poverty level compared to the children of women who were able to receive abortions.
“By comparing people who got their abortion to people who didn’t, we got all of these results about what the consequences of denial are,” Foster explains. Concerning physical and financial health, women who wanted abortions but couldn’t receive one fared worse than women who could and did. Carrying a pregnancy to term, she notes, “is associated with a lot of physical-health risk. And it’s not just the immediate consequences of many more months of pregnancy and then childbirth, although those are huge, but also differences in physical health that last for years.” Sometimes those consequences are fatal, she says. “So we found, in terms of the end of the pregnancy, people were much more likely to have serious complications from birth than they were from abortion. Two women died from childbirth, and no people died from abortion,” she says. Maternal deaths tend to have a negative impact on children.
“When we look over time, we find that people who were denied the abortion are much more likely to have economic insecurity,” she says. “We see that in them reporting that their household is below the federal poverty level, that they don’t have enough money for basic living needs.” The economic consequences of abortion denial are wide-ranging. A colleague suggested to Foster and her fellow researchers that they link their work to credit reports from a credit agency. The results revealed another bright line dividing women who could get abortions from women who could not. Women denied abortions are much more likely to carry debt, to be evicted, and to declare bankruptcy.
Such outcomes portend deepening inequality in conservative states that are likely to ban abortion. Black and Latina women and their children, who are much likelier than white people to live in poverty, will suffer disproportionate harm. In April, the Associated Press reported that Mississippi is home to the nation’s “largest share of children living in poverty.” That doesn’t appear to bother the state’s attorney general, Lynn Fitch, who defended Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban in Dobbs. Fitch grew up on the 8,000-acre Galena Plantation; when she became a single mother, she could afford day care and a nanny, she told The Lily. She does not support paid family leave and said that the day Roe ends, churches will fill in the gaps. “We are a faith-based-driven state and country,” she asserted. “Our faith-based organizations, our churches — they’re willing, they’re charitable.” They also aren’t keeping Mississippi children out of poverty. The same is true in Texas. Analyzing data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the AP also found that Texas boasts “the highest rate of women receiving no prenatal care during their first trimester and ranks second worst for the proportion of children in poverty who are uninsured.” Both states have so-called trigger laws on the books, meaning that abortion will become illegal the moment Roe is overturned. Children will be born, and the safety net will break underneath them.
America fails its children in so many ways. Without drastic changes to the order of things, children born today will experience unprecedented levels of climate change and attend schools threatened by gun violence. Decades of underfunding have created an unequal, almost patchwork public-education system, thus limiting the prospect of social mobility. An ongoing shortage of infant formula, with seemingly no political solution in sight, highlights the difficulties that children and families must bear. The right offers obstacles, not solutions; it opposes the very policy reforms that will improve the lives of children once they’re born. Under scrutiny, a fact becomes clear: The right doesn’t value children because it doesn’t value women. It regards neither as full people. The reproductive potential of a woman takes precedence over her agency. She’s a pawn, and so is the child she produces. All they can offer is suffering.
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