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Matthew Stokes: Why not do more?

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Alabama’s recently-enacted abortion law, a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, is better than the incremental approach preferred by the pro-life community for the last several years. No matter your opinion on that, most will agree that the last few weeks have provided an intense discussion over what it means to care for the vulnerable among us; the poor, the unborn, the marginalized.  

This is important to address because the level of confusion over these points has only intensified since the bill’s signing. Despite a lot of progressive caterwauling to the contrary, anti-abortion sentiment is not rooted in racism or in a bizarre desire to control the bodies of America’s women.

At its core, the anti-abortion sentiment is rooted in a belief that life begins at conception and is therefore worthy of protection in the womb.  While that unborn life is carried by, and dependent upon, the life of its mother, the totality of pregnancy is not simply “a woman’s body.” Instead, it is a complex relationship between two human beings, one of which is dependent upon the other.   Anti-abortion citizens believe that life within the womb is worthy of protection, and laws against abortion are viewed as a means of protecting that life from any violence that may be inflicted upon it. In that sense, anti-abortion legislation is indeed a restraint.  The restraint is not designed to limit anyone’s freedom, but is designed to protect an innocent life in much the same way that we are all restrained by law from attacking our neighbor.

Voters very quickly reach an impasse on this point; the belief that the rights of a life in the womb – no matter how tragic its conception – override the freedom of anyone else entails a lot of claims over science, theology, and metaphysics.  We cannot pretend that this is not a deep conversation, but living in a free society and reconciling our differences was never intended to be easy. These restraints are an example of negative liberty, wherein the liberty of one party – the child in the womb – is protected by placing a restraint upon another party.  This is a difficult issue to reconcile, but it is important that the anti-abortion argument is properly articulated. If opponents fall back on frameworks like racism or misogyny, it is hard to believe they intend to argue in good faith.

The next stage of the argument suggests that if anti-abortion voters really, truly cared about all life, they would then support any number of policies designed to aid those in need. (This is a point that cannot be rejected often enough; life is valuable on its own terms, and it does not need any additional assistance – from either the state or any private interests to justify its existence.) If pro-lifers accepted this argument, they would advance the notion that life only has value insofar as its material circumstances meet a certain ideal.  It does not follow that in order to defend a life from violence one must therefore support various and sundry initiatives designed to improve the material well-being of that life.  Conservatives rightly reject this framework, because to suggest that the state has a moral obligation to care for every life it protects within the womb is to suggest that the responsibility for the care of that life lies with the state and not with that child’s parents, extended family, and broader community.

Conservatives object to arguments about state obligations because obligations cannot extend indefinitely.  I cannot be equally obligated to my spouse, children, extended family, as well as the broader community and the nation at large.  In order to uphold the primacy of parenthood, conservatives insist on saying that responsibility rests with parents and then extends to larger family and community networks.  Despite the best intentions, social workers cannot parent a child, and it undermines parental obligations to suggest that those obligations are shared with the state at large.

Conservatives and progressives may disagree on our obligations, but perhaps we can agree that it is nevertheless in everyone’s best interests to ensure that a social safety net is in place to support those are who are need.  This may include expanding Medicaid beyond its current form, as well as other pursuing criminal justice reforms that rehabilitate while reducing recidivism and occupational licensing reforms that make it easier for young parents to enter the marketplace.  Supporters of government programming should bear in mind that others may have a good faith preference for the charity of the private sector, and attributing racist motivations to others who oppose increasing the government coffers is never helpful. And of course there are the economic concerns; how will new taxes and government programs give people new incentives, and how will people respond?

As a rhetorical matter, though, the support from the state cannot displace two important ideas.  First, both parents must take responsibility for their children. Second, the life of young children is no less dignified because of poverty or material want. Depending on your politics, those last two points are either obvious truths or more conservative finger-wagging.  Still these points can’t be overlooked because obligation and responsibility cannot go on indefinitely. Collective responsibility will, over time and by force of law and custom, crowd out private responsibility. If the state holds moral responsibility for the well-being of children, it is then free to compete with and possibly overrule parents in determining what is best for those children. While we agree on a handful of regulations to protect kids – seat belt laws, vaccinations, etc. – we should be skeptical of any program with the potential to supplant the rights and responsibilities of parents.  

We may decide that our state should do more to support those in need.  It may be that help comes in the form of additional expenditures and transfers of money and resources.  A lot of help could come from reforming public education and occupational licensing. Yet I wonder how much any of that changes the conversation on abortion.

Last week a set of Florida abortion statistics went viral. In 2018, the state of Florida recorded 70,083 abortions, with only 109 performed due to rape or incest.  Another 14,000 were performed due to social or economic reasons, with around 3,000 performed due to concerns over the health of the mother or fetus.  That left 52,844 abortions performed for elective reasons. Even if you assume that some of those elective abortions were for social or economic reasons, that still leaves well over two-thirds of all abortions in a neighboring state performed for elective reasons. Alabama does not record the reasons for abortions, but it’s hard to imagine they are significantly different.

Several stories have popped up in Alabama lately reminding us that the state’s new law will have a stronger impact among the poor and people of color.  That’s not news to anyone; the pro-life movement has argued for decades that babies should not die simply because they would be born into a difficult circumstance, and that abortion has been a scourge upon minority communities.  If there has been reticence about social programs, it is often because the complexity of poverty owes as much to legislative complexity as it does to social apathy. The pro-life movement has many imperfections, but its goal has been to defend the dignity of life in the womb.  It does not owe anyone a position on the dozens of other policies in our state and nation, and it is well within its rights and responsibilities to hand that baton off to other folks dedicated to building their own expertise in order solve those problems.

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