Now that social conservatives have finally won their generational struggle to overturn Roe v. Wade, is it time for the anti-abortion movement to finally embrace a seamless culture of life that extends its protections to mothers and children who have already been born?
The answer is no — no, it isn’t. And yet many social conservatives believe just such a transformation lies around the corner. Their hope may be delusional, yet the fact of its existence is itself revealing.
Two decades ago, the conservative movement had essentially no internal opposition to its reigning creed of supply-side economics, which holds tax cuts for the rich to be the correct solution to all economic and fiscal circumstances and abhors the downward redistribution of wealth. There now exists a small but vocal clique of conservative intellectuals willing to criticize that creed — albeit usually in measured terms. (This is a disagreement among comrades, after all.)
Those conservatives have grasped onto the Dobbs ruling as their chance to steer the party’s economic doctrine away from its doctrinaire course. “There is now a really important opening for pro-life Republicans to be more open about their support of social-welfare programs,” Charlie Camosy, ethics professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine and anti-abortion columnist for the Religion News Service, hopefully tells The Atlantic.
“The pro-life impulse could control and improve conservative governance rather than being undermined by it, making the G.O.P. more serious about family policy and public health,” proposes Ross Douthat in a New York Times op-ed.
Douthat makes a persuasive description of the moral stakes involved. The anti-abortion movement contains activists and thinkers who believe in a “seamless garment” of life, which requires support for generous social provisions for families in addition to restrictions on abortion. But his reasoning suffers from the same flaw that can be found every time he analyzes the Republican Party: He treats the existing party as though it is hypothetical while presenting the alternative party he wishes to exist as real. “You can imagine a future in which anti-abortion laws are permanently linked to a punitive and stingy politics,” he writes, “in which women in difficulties can face police scrutiny for a suspicious miscarriage but receive little in the way of prenatal guidance or postnatal support.”
That is not merely the future. It is the past and present. After all, conservatives may have more latitude to restrict abortion now, but it’s not as if they had no opportunity to do so before. Conservatives have applied a combination of legal restrictions, social pressure, and terrorist threats to make abortion exceedingly difficult to obtain in much of the country.
The Dobbs case originated in Mississippi, a state that has one remaining clinic that performs abortions. As the decision’s dissenters note, “a state-by-state analysis by public health professionals shows that States with the most restrictive abortion policies also continue to invest the least in women’s and children’s health.” Mississippi is the state with the highest infant-mortality rate in the U.S.
Is there any sign that this could change? Consider the negotiations around the child tax credit. The American Jobs Plan created an enhanced benefit for families, which has proven to be one of the most successful social experiments in recent U.S. history by reducing child poverty by one-third.
The measure, however, has failed to attract any Republican support and expired this year. Mitt Romney has tried to recruit members of his party to support a newer, bipartisan version of the plan. He unveiled his idea last year. The Niskanen Center, which helped Romney design the proposal, boasted that it would reduce the child-poverty rate from 12.41 percent to 8.37 percent.
However, the measure was too generous to low-income families to attract any Republican support in Congress. So, recently, Romney retooled his plan and rolled out a newer version. The second, stingier version would, according to Niskanen, reduce the child-poverty rate to 10.8 percent. In other words, according to its own advocates, the new plan would be less than half as effective as the old one. In return for these concessions, Romney has gained a total of two Republican supporters in the Senate.
If Romney wants to win enough Republicans to join with the Democrats and break a Republican filibuster, he will have to give back even more, and there’s hardly anything left to give back.
One can certainly sympathize with Romney’s goals here. The problem is that he is working within the constraints of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Those constraints include an absolute prohibition on new taxes or any cuts that would harm the rich. The sole exception is the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes, which Republicans are willing to eliminate because it harms blue-state residents and creates an incentive to shrink their states’ governments down to red-state levels — that is, levels that require sparse welfare states, high poverty, and cruel treatment of the poor.
Obviously, coming events can’t be predicted with any certainty. It’s theoretically possible to imagine a future in which advocates of generous social family policy are aligned with, rather than against, advocates of restrictions on abortion.
But nothing about the Dobbs decision hastens the creation of such an alliance. To the contrary, abortion is becoming more salient, and centripetal forces that held together the conservative alliance will be stronger rather than weaker. Abortion opponents will fight battles in every state and in every Congress for the foreseeable future. They have no incentive to break with the allies who have stood with them for decades. Now they will ask Republicans to accept higher levels of political risk to enact abortion restrictions that were previously off the table and which risk blowback against the party. They need the anti-government right more than ever.
The anti-abortion movement’s critics depict it as “punitive and cruel and patriarchal, piling burdens on poor women and doing nothing to relieve them, putting unborn life ahead of the lives and health of women while pretending to hold them equal,” Douthat concedes. “To win the long-term battle, to persuade the country’s vast disquieted middle, abortion opponents need models that prove this critique wrong.”
But the hard fact is that, despite all Douthat’s efforts to summon a better reality into existence, the critique is, in fact, correct.