Punishing the Poor, Again

January 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican approach to Medicaid seems designed not to improve the health and lives of the poor but to bolster other people’s feelings of righteousness. That’s why these policies focus on punishment for the “undeserving poor.” (See the previous post.)

The same preference for punishing sinners rather than solving problems pervades the anti-abortion movement. If the goal is to reduce the number of abortions, it would seem logical to reduce unwanted pregnancies. But most anti-abortion groups and politicians also want to restrict birth control.

Abortion opponents should also, logically, promote policies that make motherhood easier, but they don’t. Instead, as Michelle Oberman in today’s New York Times (here) points out, abortion opponents typically focus on making abortion more and more difficult or even punishing abortion-seeking women. These policies fall hardest, of course, on women with little money.

The price of motherhood is set by our government’s policies. It will, at some level, always be cheaper for a woman to have an abortion than to have a baby. But if anti-abortion campaigners truly want to decrease the numbers of abortions, rather than passing laws designed to drive up the costs of abortion, they would do far better to invest in the kinds of economic supports that make becoming a parent a realistic possibility for struggling women.

Consider the medical needs of the women living at Rose Home: access to health care, substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, food and housing. Each has a price tag. Yet rather than offsetting the high price of motherhood, recent anti-abortion laws drive up the cost of abortion by closing clinics, forcing women to travel farther, and to wait longer before ending their pregnancies.

The abortion war, with its singular focus on law, distracts us from the economic factors entwined in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. In a world of true choice, whether a woman walked into a Planned Parenthood or a crisis pregnancy center, she would learn that society cared enough to provide her with the resources she needs, regardless of her decision.

Oberman refers to “focus on law” in that last paragraph, but the laws she’s talking about, much like the Medicaid work-requirement rules, are designed not to help pregnant women but to make life more difficult for the unrighteous. The message these laws send is not that we want you to become a mother but that we want to see you suffer for having an unwanted pregnancy. For abortion opponents, having their morality engraved into the law the allows for rejoicing in righteous victory, but as Oberman says, it doesn’t do much for poor women or for their babies.

Last week, a New York Times op-ed about Medicare had a title that characterized the Republican approach: “You’re Sick. Whose Fault Is That?” The same idea applied to abortion would give us “You’re Pregnant. Whose Fault Is That?” It’s a great question if you are interested in assessing blame. The payoff comes in the currency of feelings – guilt (for those with illness or unwanted pregnancy), pride or righteousness for the healthy and virtuous. But if you’re interested in effective policy to improve people’s health or reduce abortion, “whose fault?” is the wrong question.Why not ask, “How can we help?”

* Policies like this play well in the US. Where other countries see problems and search for effective solutions, Americans tend to see moral wrongdoing that should be punished. This tendency is especially strong in the area of sexuality, especially female sexuality, and not just when the issue is abortion. 

Nine years ago I wrote (here) about a Pennsylvania district attorney who was threatening to prosecute 15-year old girls for “sexual abuse of a minor.” The minors? Themselves. Their crime? A year or two earlier, they had taken cell-phone photos of themselves that showed them from the waist-up wearing only a bra. If convicted, they could be sent to prison and forced to register as sex offenders.

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