The Pro-life Movement’s Work Is Just Beginning

Now is the time for gratitude and profound humility about what comes after Roe.

Illustration of hands and a mother and child.
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

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The entire legal and cultural ethos of the pro-life movement can be summed up in two sentences: A just society protects all life. A moral society values all life.

Justice is thus necessary but not sufficient for a culture of life. The pro-life movement should greet the reversal of Roe v. Wade with a spirit of gratitude. The people of this country have, for the first time in almost 50 years, an opportunity to enact laws that truly protect the lives of unborn children. But the movement should also show a profound humility and absence of malice toward their political opponents.

After all, the simple truth is that if the pro-life movement wants to end abortion, it has to do much more work than merely banning abortion. Indeed, if it reacts with too heavy a hand in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the movement can ultimately defeat its very purpose.

The history of abortion in the United States is contentious and complicated, but a single fact should shape much of the debate in the months and years to come: Abortion was more common when it was mostly illegal. According to data from the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate was at about 16 abortions per 1,000 women when Roe was decided in 1973, soared to 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women by the end of the Carter administration in 1981, and then began a long, slow, and steady decline to an all-time low of 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women in 2017.

This decrease doesn’t mean that pro-life Americans should cease working to provide legal protections for unborn life. As a matter of deep principle, we cannot leave any human being unprotected by law—and the life and health of the mother are as paramount as those of the child. But the historical record does tell us that ending abortion is a different matter from banning abortion, and we cannot end abortion until we learn why women seek abortions and how our nation can address the concerns that lead them to make that choice.

In 2020 the Notre Dame sociologist Tricia Bruce released a fascinating and highly original study of American attitudes about abortion. Rather than merely asking a set of conventional poll questions, she and her team engaged in a series of in-depth interviews with a representative sample of the American population.

As I read the study, two things stood out to me. First, not one of the individuals they interviewed talked about abortion as a “desirable good.” Even those respondents who were strongly supportive of abortion rights did “not uphold abortion as a happy event, or something they want more of.” Attitudes ranged from “restrictive to ambivalent to permissive,” and yet Bruce’s team heard about “the desire to prevent, reduce, and eliminate potentially difficult or unexpected circumstances that predicate abortion decisions.”

This initial finding alone helps explain the decades-long decline in abortion rates. If women don’t perceive abortion as a positive good, then millions will either take steps to avoid unplanned pregnancies (through contraception, for example) or choose to carry pregnancies to term rather than abort their child.

At the same time, abortion is still common in spite of the widespread distaste for the practice. This brings us to the second important finding: Americans of all stripes are intensely interested in the circumstances of pregnancies. Respondents raised concerns about the nature of the relationship between mother and father (whether it was consensual, for example), about efforts at “pregnancy prevention,” and—crucially—about the financial stability and physical health of the mother.

Taken together, these two realities provide a guide for pro-life America’s next moves. If banning abortion doesn’t end abortion, then what will? The answer is deceptively simple in concept, yet extraordinarily difficult in practice. Our nation must ease the fears and concerns—which are legitimate—of women who are already predisposed to view abortion as a last resort, not a first choice.

Doing so is a matter of both better policy and personal conduct. Better policy is embodied by Mitt Romney’s proposed Family Security Act, which would provide most American families with monthly financial assistance even when a child is still in the womb. Parents of young children would receive $350 a month per child, and parents of older children would receive $250 a month per child. Pregnant women could receive up to four $700 monthly payments, one for each of the last four months of pregnancy. The Romney plan isn’t the answer to child poverty and family financial insecurity, but it is an answer, and its concrete financial support for mothers and children would be a tangible statement of our nation’s moral commitment to young families.

No set of policies relieves pro-life Americans of personal responsibilities. That means fostering and adopting children. That means loving mothers in distress. That means sustaining and creating private institutions that provide shelter and assistance to women in need.

And this is where the animosity that dominates American political discourse can be so destructive. The last thing pro-life Americans should want is to create the perception that they do not love pro-choice women and will not seek to help them and their children flourish. No virtue can be had in “owning the libs” when a hostile posture will close hearts and minds.

I’ve been a pro-life attorney and activist for more than 30 years. On this long-awaited day I feel both joy in my heart and disquiet in my spirit. The reason for the joy is obvious. Our nation’s elected representatives now have the ability to enact laws that better protect innocent life.

The disquiet comes from a different source. Earlier this month, we learned that the abortion rate increased during Trump’s presidency. He was the first American president since Jimmy Carter to end his term with a higher abortion rate than when he began.

This suggests that, for the first time in three decades, the cultural momentum is not on the pro-life side, that women are facing an increased sense of instability and uncertainty, and that the best way for pro-life Americans to view the reversal of Roe is not as the beginning of the end of abortion in the United States, but rather as the end of the beginning of a long struggle to remake our nation into a culture that is far more hospitable to mother and child.

Want to discuss more? Join Adrienne LaFrance on Wednesday, June 29, at 12:30 p.m. ET for a conversation about life after Roe v. Wade with the legal historian Mary Ziegler and the constitutional lawyer David French. Register here.