In 2019, there were more than 600,000 abortions in the United States. That’s 600,000 children who never drew their first breath, 600,000 mothers who felt that their “choices” were narrowed to just one, difficult option, and innumerable fathers, grandparents, neighbors and classmates whose lives were different because of the absence of that child.
The Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization limits the danger to children in the womb, but the justices cannot confer dignity, safety or hope by fiat. That’s the continued work required of the anti-abortion movement, work that offers chances for alliances with advocates for abortion rights. We don’t have to agree about the moral weight of abortion to acknowledge that America has neither a culture of life nor a culture of choice. We live in, as Pope Francis has termed it, a throwaway culture.
The majority of abortions in the United States are sought by women who have previously given birth to a baby. They don’t need to see an ultrasound to make the connection between pregnancy and parenthood. When mothers seeking abortion were interviewed in-depth, many said that they wanted to be able to give birth to the child they were carrying, but they felt it wouldn’t be fair to the children they were already struggling to care for. These women pass the test of the abortion-rights slogan “Every child a wanted child.” But they could tell that their children were unwanted by the rest of us. Death was the only “choice” that we, as a nation, made provision for.
Before doctor-assisted suicide was legal, abortion was the only accepted and encouraged form of euthanasia. In both cases, death is offered as a false mercy; an option that only appears kind in contrast to our deliberate neglect. Medical aid in dying was initially legalized for a narrow range of circumstances, but it has been catching up to the “on demand and without apology” rhetoric of abortion.
This year, in Canada, a woman was denied assistance in finding housing that could help her manage her chronic illness and was steered toward medical aid in dying instead. Her government tallied up the cost savings from expanding medical aid in dying, and offering death to patients earlier in the progression of their illnesses. The sooner people chose to die, the more money saved.
In the case of doctor-assisted suicide, putting one more choice on the table did not expand people’s options. It offered an excuse for failing to support every better option, once death was available as the backstop. It offered a way to place blame on people struggling to survive, since living was now their choice, and, thus, their own fault.
Removing an option, even a bad option, will similarly not be a simple fix. Parents deserve more support. They deserve to be free of red-tape hurdles that come from outsourcing the cost of running a program onto the people it is meant to serve. The expanded child tax credit lifted 3 million children out of poverty in 2021, but due to its flawed design, didn’t reach the poorest families. The best pregnancy resource centers act as benefit navigators, helping families receive the benefits to which they’re entitled, but which aren’t truly accessible.
When a mother realizes she’s pregnant, the first doctor she makes contact with should be able to help her sign up for any benefits she’s entitled to (which should be substantially expanded and simplified relative to the status quo). But care isn’t just about signing checks — any mom, whether in a crisis pregnancy or not, should get an introduction to mothers’ groups in her community, easily accessible, possibly at the library, with parallel groups for dads. Churches and other community centers should greet every growing family with connections to teens and young adults who are offering babysitting hours as community service. People need connections of care, as well as financial flexibility.
Many people working to end abortion have offered vocal, sustained advocacy for these material supports, but conservative politicians have often been happy to hold voters hostage over judicial nominations without listening to whole-life demands for justice. Democrats have been more willing to put economic justice at the heart of their platform, but as policymakers, they let the details slide, even for the people they count as people.
Material supports are necessary but not sufficient. Creating a culture of life means embracing the hard cases. I’ve seen some of the most profound tributes to the dignity of human life in the care offered to parents facing a terminal diagnosis for their child in utero.
For example, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a national network of photographers who offer their services for free to parents who anticipate a stillbirth or getting to have only a short time after birth with their child. Refrigerated bassinets give parents more time to sit alongside their child. The Trappists of New Melleray Abbey make handmade coffins, with pillows that fit in the palm of a parent’s hand, that they send for free to parents who miscarry.
A anti-abortion culture is one that doesn’t depend on appeals to “You might have aborted Beethoven,’’ but which finds value in the shortest life, the most limited life. It’s not about potential, inside or outside the womb. None of us earns our existence. None of us should have our dignity depend on another’s choice. It is the shared vulnerability of the child and the parents that merits our support. We have failed more than 600,000 families every year since 1973. Abortion makes children bear the greatest cost of that failure. The Dobbs decision will make the needs of children and families impossible to hide. It’s up to us to meet it without reservation and with great love.
Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.