The economics of choice: Christians, abortion, and justice

May 16th, 2017

In the wake of inter-Democratic Party arguments over the focus and future of the party, Bryce Covert published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Why Abortion is a Progressive Economic Issue.” With different factions of the Democratic Party torn between focusing on economic issues or so-called identity politics (issues that affect traditionally marginalized groups), Ms. Covert attempts to bridge the gap by arguing that abortion, seen as a women’s rights issue, is also an economic one. To achieve economic equality with men, women must have reproductive freedom. For women, economic issues and reproductive rights are intertwined.

Even before Roe v. Wade, there was a relationship between economics and abortion. In 1936, birth rates dropped to an all-time low due to the economic pressures of the Great Depression. Although we don’t have official statistics on pregnancy terminations, it is doubtful that couples just stopped having sex. More recently, the energy crisis in the 1970s and the recent Great Recession had similar effects on birth rates.

As more women have pursued higher education and entered the workplace, limiting and timing pregnancies has become even more important for economic equality. Even still, recent studies show that a large portion of the gender wage gap is due to motherhood. At the beginning of their careers, women and men are paid equally, but the wage gap widens at about the time that many women have children. This includes women who do not have children, as women are more likely to sacrifice job opportunities for their husband’s career.

So the way our current system works, the crucially important work of child-bearing, child-rearing, and care-taking — primarily undertaken by women — is punished economically. For women on the economic margins, controlling fertility can be more a matter of keeping a job or housing or food on the table rather than equality. Without mandated paid parental leave or childcare assistance, the “choice” between bringing a child into the world or falling below the poverty line is not much of a choice at all. How “pro-life” is a system that economically punishes those who bring new life into the world? How “pro-choice” is a system that leaves some women with little choice but to terminate an unplanned pregnancy?

Mainstream feminism has bought into this argument that abortion is an economic necessity while failing to inquire more deeply into a broader patriarchal capitalist society that sees value in its participants only as far as they can produce profit. As Christians, we know that the intrinsic value of every human being comes from being made in the image of God, not our ability to reap economic reward. We cannot lightly prescribe something as serious and as tragic as abortion without grappling with the fundamental injustices of our society that leave some women with little hope but abortion.

While many churches do the much-needed Kingdom work of offering mercy to the poor, the sick, and the suffering as part of their understanding of their mission, we do not always do the harder, deeper work of inquiring why there is systemic poverty. Mercy and justice often go hand in hand. Getting to know individuals by volunteering at a homeless shelter might lead to questioning why those who work full-time (and often more) are unable to afford safe housing. God’s justice is on behalf of those with the least social capital, not only in treating their immediate needs but also interrogating the broader systems that create those needs. Or as Brazilian Roman Catholic archbishop Helder Camara wrote, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

In a response to this argument linking economic equality and abortion, Lori Szala, the national director of client services at Human Coalition, wrote an op-ed detailing the dehumanizing and creativity-lacking aspects of a view that sees people, particularly women, as primarily economic units. Ms. Szala recognizes that offering women real choices takes effort and the commitment of a community, as the comprehensive needs of women are complicated and complex and might include drug treatment, job training, and assistance navigating government benefits. At the same time, it is no secret that crisis pregnancy centers like Human Coalition can be manipulative and even intentionally mislead women about their options in their efforts to keep women from choosing abortion.

If a woman’s only choice for economic survival is abortion, then something is seriously wrong with our society, and that “choice” is not much of a choice at all. Yes, abortion is a progressive economic issue, but it goes beyond mere “equality” to the questioning of the foundations of an economic system that is dehumanizing at its core; a system that punishes both men and women for labor that capitalism has not deemed productive or valuable, the very labor that brings new life into the world, that cares for those who cannot care for themselves  the young, the old, the disabled, etc.

In complete opposition to the proclaimed Kingdom of God, we participate in a system that denigrates the weak in favor of the strong, that destroys God’s creation, and that privileges individualism over community. Those of us who identify as “pro-choice” must commit not only to fighting for reproductive rights but also for other options so that women can make real choices for their own flourishing and the flourishing of their families.

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