As a mother I think a lot about creating contexts in which it's easier to say YES. Sometimes it's my job to say NO, but I believe -- and my experience so far has borne out the idea -- that if you equip kids to say YES, and build relationships in which they want to say YES, there's little need for frequent reiterations of NO. I believe, too, that elaborate plans focused on punishment are bad for parent-child relationships and the climate of the home. This is the very heart of my Croissants series: my job is to help my kids find the joy in duty.
There are plenty of parenting experts who disagree with me. James Dobson is aaaaalllll about the importance of obedience. Don't get me wrong; I expect to be obeyed. But what I am seeing in my own children is that consistent obedience can arise from mutual love and respect. I don't have to hit my kids; I don't have to instill obedience via fear.
So it's probably not surprising to my pals who read this blog that my vision of pro-life action is based on YES more than NO. And it probably shouldn't be surprising to me that there's lots of support for the NO approach. (Is it a coincidence that Dobson has endorsed Trump?)
Here's what I mean: there are two broad strategies for increasing the numbers of pregnancies that women carry to term. You can make it harder to get abortions, or you can make it easier to bear a child. American pro-lifers have mostly planted their flag in "make it harder" territory, creating a miserable mystifying mésalliance between many committed Catholics and the 2016 version of the GOP.
Why are we focused on creating barriers between women and abortion instead of removing barriers between women and motherhood?
Do you remember the 2008 election, when that clip of Obama talking about the Freedom of Choice Act was passed around and around and around in Catholic circles? Do you remember how his presidency was supposedly going to signal the apocalypse, in which all Catholic hospitals would be required to perform abortions? Why, my friends, why why WHY are Catholics not acknowledging the pro-life value of the Affordable Care Act? I'm sympathetic, of course, to the Little Sisters of the Poor, but consider this: when insurance companies were required by federal law to cover prenatal care, a significant obstacle to sustaining unplanned and sort-of-planned pregnancies was diminished. I am remembering the frustrations of seeking out maternity coverage in 2001, when Elwood's employer didn't provide health insurance and we wanted another baby. The total premiums for a policy that covered pregnancy-related expenses would have cost us 4 times the eventual bill from the doctor who delivered Joe in our living room. How can it be a good idea to return to those days, when an unexpected pregnancy could mean a woman had to find $40,000 (or declare bankruptcy) to cover a repeat C-section? So why have there been repeated attempts by the "pro-life" party to repeal the ACA?
There are pro-life organizations that focus on meeting pregnant women's immediate needs -- I used to volunteer for Birthright, for instance, dispensing layettes and encouragement to women who wanted to continue their pregnancies. The layette is not the hard part, though. I do not know of any pro-life activist groups that also focus on maternity leave or affordable childcare. But here is a truth Catholics need to reckon with: we are sending postpartum women -- especially poor postpartum women -- back to work still bleeding and unrecovered. We shrug about maternity leave, as if this problem that the rest of the developed world (along with most of the developing world!) has addressed successfully is simply unfixable. Here is another truth Catholics need to reckon with: childcare is enormously expensive, and high-quality childcare costs more than low-quality childcare. The inequities start early, and the American pro-life movement is directing zero energy toward resolving them. Pat Buchanan, in fact, directed considerable energy toward entrenching them.
If a woman is worried about paying her doctor, and worried about affording the time off that she will need to heal after childbirth, and completely baffled about how she could afford to pay for childcare-- is it surprising, in those circumstances, that some women think abortion seems like a more reasonable choice than continuing a pregnancy? This, my friends, could be fertile ground for bipartisan pro-life action. Why is it that we seem to prefer intransigence?
One of my dearest friends from college is an abortion provider. I pray for her, of course; of course I wish she were a careful and compassionate dermatologist instead. But I also listen to her perspective, because in my little group of Catholic friends I am pretty insulated from the reality of abortion. Eight years ago she told me something I'll never forget; she said, "I see a lot of women who just can't afford that third baby." In pro-life circles there is a troubling focus on ideological purity. "So-and-so isn't really pro-life," they say, "because he supports exceptions for the mother's health." Some pro-lifers assert that exceptions for the mother's life aren't necessary, because modern medicine means it never comes down to that. This is wrong on three separate fronts: first, it is factually incorrect; second, it is unconscionably callous; and third, it is unwise strategically because it puts the focus on a tiny number of hard cases. They raise important questions, absolutely; I do not dispute the unique and unrepeatable nature of those babies' lives. But it's a truism that hard cases make bad law.
I think all the time about the mothers who just can't afford that third baby. They are not a tiny number and they do not have to be hard cases. How can we help them to say YES? How can we focus on touching hearts rather than writing laws? Because here's the thing: if the hearts change, the laws will follow. Jesus was always more interested in the state of the heart than the letter of the law.
The pro-life movement has wrecked its credibility with folks outside the movement; they do not see us as allies in a quest to support women in making good decisions -- even when that decision is to sustain a pregnancy. We have focused so much on "Go and sin no more" that we have forgotten the first part, the foundational part, the part that makes sinning no more a possibility: "Neither do I condemn you." We say "culture of life" and they hear "married white people who have seven children and think everybody else should do the same." But creating a culture of life is part of the answer-- a messy painful essential part.
In a culture of life there is space for disability, patience and acceptance and benefit-of-the-doubt-extending. There is acknowledgment of the redemptive work of childbearing in a post-Incarnation world, and acknowledgment that anything redemptive is destined to be hard -- sometimes heartbreakingly hard. (In my personal version of the culture of life there is zero room -- I mean zero room -- for social media shaming of other parents. This gig is tough enough already.) There is unquestioning acceptance of the intrinsic dignity of women, and of their capacity to respond autonomously to grace.
This is why it crushes me when my friends say they're voting for Donald Trump because they're pro-life: because a man who mocks the disabled, who views pregnancy as inconvenient, and who boasts about his violations of women's dignity and autonomy is the very antithesis of pro-life. He is advancing the culture of death, in fact. If this is the best the Republicans can manage, it's past time for Catholics to move on.
I dream of a world without abortion. And there's a place for NO in the public square, just as there is in my own home. But we're not going to end abortion by fiat, by a legislated NO. We can only get there by fiat, by fostering a culture in which women are free to say a fearless and joyful YES.