Published September 16, 2022
In the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers have had to come to grips with the fact that much more work lies ahead. A pro-life amendment suffered a decisive defeat in Kansas, and public-opinion polling has shown continued skepticism towards the pro-life position in the months following Dobbs.
If winning in Dobbs simply meant a smaller GOP margin in the House, it would be a tradeoff worth taking. But beyond the political realm, the pro-life cause is losing the public relations battle as well. Clumsy legislative texts, viral distortions and misinformation, and well-meaning but misinformed advocates have raised questions about pro-lifers’ seriousness in protecting children and their mothers.
Much focus and time has been spent on ectopic pregnancies, cases of rape and incest, and other thankfully rare cases. But most women who have an abortions tend to cite concerns that are economic in nature—concerns over being able to afford a child, or worries that a baby would make it harder to provide for their family or harm their job prospects. Conservatives have struggled to put together a compelling slate of policies aimed at reducing the factors that make many women feel like abortion is the only choice for them.
Over the long term, conservatives should advance policies that make life easier for all families. Policies like a reformed child tax credit (CTC), paid leave, or better child care options would be broadly pro-family and lessen the economic demands on parents, particularly those facing unexpected pregnancies.
But the more immediate need, however, are targeted policy ideas that address the needs of pregnant and postpartum moms, and respond to the talking points about the health and life of the mother. To secure the victory in Dobbs, Republicans should prioritize assistance that can improve health outcomes for mothers and babies and ease some of the financial pressures associated with the first early months of childhood.
While opportunities for passing legislation in Congress are limited in the short-term, federal lawmakers should be laying down a marker for future pro-life legislation. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s package of post-Dobbs policy proposals is exactly the type of approach conservatives should loudly champion.
The Providing for Life Act would earmark money for community-based mentoring programs for new moms, and ensure pregnancy resource centers’ eligibility for federal funds aimed at supporting women. These types of approaches would help build more opportunities for support around pregnant women, and do so by not crowding out the work of non-profit agencies, but amplifying and catalyzing it.
It would also orient some safety-net programs in a more pro-life direction. States would be incentivized to establish rules that would make the father of an unborn child responsible for half of the costs of pregnancy. The Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program would see some funding boosts, providing tangible support to low-income women and children. And the bill would create a website— www.life.gov—to serve as a one-stop clearinghouse for all public resources available to pregnant women and their children, a useful and tangible sign of our priorities as a nation.
Sen. Rubio’s package of legislation also includes his approaches for paid leave and CTC expansion, which continue to inspire debate on the right. Those planks could be left to influence future discussions on the future of family policy on the right in D.C., while the other provisions deserve to be taken up immediately if Republicans take back a chamber of Congress this fall (as a political matter, it might be interesting to see what Democrats oppose increased social spending if it is predicated on making abortion less necessary and less available.)
But states, of course, need not wait to see where the chips fall following the midterm elections to begin advancing authentically pro-life legislation. One avenue is especially low-hanging fruit: Under current federal law, moms who give birth on Medicaid are covered for post-natal care up to 60 days after birth, at which point they are cut off. Without having to change eligibility for safety-net health care coverage, states can opt-in to a federal waiver that extends that timeframe to one year postpartum, ensuring low-income moms get the follow-up care they need. Conservative states like South Carolina and Tennessee have already taken this step.
Allowing Medicaid coverage of doulas, women who provide support during labor and delivery, has been associated with better outcomes for new mothers. Eleven states have already passed laws to do so, with more considering following suit. Corporations like Walmart are also increasingly including coverage for doulas in their employer-provided health care plans.
There are other ways policymakers could prioritize better pre- and postnatal care. The Trump administration endorsed community-driven programs and better hospital practices aimed at reducing maternal mortality. Two programs that receive federal funds and have traditionally received bipartisan support are the Healthy Start program, run by the Health Resources & Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health bureau, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.
States could supplement federal funding to expand their reach, or fund their own – Indiana’s abortion ban included $45 million for its Hoosier Families First Fund, which will be used for health care, child care, foster and adoptive care, and other programs that support healthy pregnancies and families. These efforts are not just nice add-ons for the pro-life cause; they are essential.
Another critical component for pro-life advocates is taking a clear, unambiguous stance on reasonable exceptions to abortion bans. No state has passed a ban on abortions which are deemed medically necessary to save the life of the mother, but that hasn’t stopped claims about doctors refusing to provide routine medical care for fear of overbroad legal interpretations from going viral.
Even the Catholic church, one of the most stalwart institutions advocating for the unborn, has traditionally held that procedures that aim to preserve the mother’s life, even at the foreseeable and regrettable loss of the baby, are permissible. Actions such as removing an ectopic pregnancy, treating an incomplete miscarriage, or performing life-saving treatment that results in fetal demise all aim to preserve the mother’s life, not ensure the fetus’ death—an essential moral difference.
As state ballot initiatives to codify or extend the Roe regime gain steam in states like California and Michigan, pro-lifers must be vocal proponents of clear exemptions on procedures that result in fetal demise while saving the life of the mother, like removing ectopic pregnancies. Some element of prudence is called for as well; calling for a ban on abortion after eight weeks gestation may be politically feasible in some states but not others.
States could pursue a variety of pro-family measures to make all parents lives’ easier. Several states have moved to make diapers tax-free, to help put a few more dollars in parents’ pockets. Pregnancy resource centers can’t do everything, but they still play a critical role in making sure women facing unexpected pregnancies have access to meaningful assistance and accompaniment. Texas and Indiana are among the states that have recently made significant investments in this type of much-needed support.
Voters can sense hypocrisy. A movement that does not address the rare but real cases of life-threatening pregnancies, or tackle the other factors that drive some women to contemplate abortion, runs the risk of coming across as heartless. That is the opposite of the truth. Any pro-life activist will tell you their ultimate goal is to ensure both mothers and the babies they carry can go on to live healthy, meaningful lives. But the believers in this cause must demonstrate, without a doubt, how serious they are in making that vision a reality.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.