Imagining A Pro-Life America

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During the long, long arguments about the implicit pro-life messages, or lack thereof, in films like Knocked Up and Juno, my interlocutors frequently made the point that even if the movies were mildly pro-life, they weren't effective arguments for an anti-abortion position, because neither film’s storyline actually reflected the experience of most American women who consider terminating their pregnancy. Which is fair enough so far as it goes - but if that’s the case do I really have to endure the suggestion, from J. Hoberman among others, that a film set in Ceauşescu's Romania has more relevance than any of them to the American abortion debate?

Hoberman's piece seems as good a peg as any to hang an argument that I don’t think either side in the abortion debate has contemplated seriously enough – namely, that any successful attempt, in a post-Roe world, to ban or strictly regulate abortion in the United States would amount to an epic social experiment, with no obvious antecedents in our own history or any other country’s. The U.S. isn’t a Communist hellhole or a patriarchal Third World society, and it isn’t at all the same country that it was the last time abortion was widely illegal. It’s a post-feminist, post-sexual revolution society, and any attempt at restricting abortion that hopes to succeed – whether legally, politically or morally – would have to take these realities into account to a far greater degree than, say, the hapless attempt at a blanket ban that South Dakota passed two years ago. Designing abortion restrictions for contemporary America would require compromises on the part of pro-lifers, obviously – not only on rape and incest but also probably on the availability and distribution of the morning-after pill. But more than that, it would almost certainly require large-scale (and expensive) experimentation with the American welfare state, to address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of pregnant women each year who would suddenly no longer have the option of aborting their unborn - and the hundreds of thousands of children who would come into the world as a result.

What exact form this sort of experimentation would take I'm not sure; it's a thorny enough subject to make a topic for a long essay or even a book. But over the short term, there's no question that it would require conservatives to temporarily table many of their longstanding policy goals - from cutting illegitimacy rates to reducing welfare dependency to limiting the size of government – in the name of the pro-life cause. (This goes for me as much as for anyone else: While Grand New Party assumes that the GOP will remain a staunchly pro-life party, the agenda it proposes also assumes that the landscape of abortion politics will remain roughly as it is today for the foreseeable future.) Over the long run, my assumption is that a ban on abortion, by changing the incentives of sexual behavior and family formation, would actually end up reducing out-of-wedlock births, welfare spending, and all the rest of it, and that a short-term investment in a pro-life welfare state (and an acceptance of the short term spike in illegitimacy, dependency and government spending that would presumably accompany it) would prove a boon to conservatism in the end. But that's a long-term hope, not a short-term plan - and even if that assumption weren’t borne out, I still think that a higher illegitimacy rate and a more expensive and intrusive welfare state would be a small price to pay for a country where every human being enjoyed the protection of the laws.

Obviously, not everyone on the Right would agree, which is one reason why the abortion debate ultimately cuts across party lines, if not across party platforms. (As Reihan notes, Will Saletan’s Bearing Right is the book to read on the subject.) And just as obviously, the scenario I just sketched out probably never come to pass; even if Roe disappears, I suspect that the country will settle into an equilibrium more pro-choice than pro-life, with more chances for experimentation with abortion policy but not all that many more. But if real opportunities do arise and the pro-life movement seizes them, I think it's safe to say that the results will look, in policy and practice alike, unlike any abortion regime that now exists, or has ever existed before.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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