Updated at 12:25 p.m. ET on June 28, 2022
Paying pregnant women’s bills was not exactly part of Nathan and Emily Berning’s life plan—until they realized that doing so actually helped dissuade women from getting abortions. One of the first was Atoria Foley, who was living in her car when she found out that she was pregnant. Atoria had scheduled an abortion and the Bernings sprang to action. They flew to Sacramento, California, where she lived, and put her up in a hotel. What Atoria needed—groceries, gas, car payments—they covered, sometimes with their own money. They signed her up for every government benefit they could. When Atoria finally canceled her abortion appointment, the Bernings were elated. Her son, Kiahari, turned 2 years old in March.
Three years have passed since the Indiana couple launched Let Them Live, a nonprofit that gives financial help to women to keep them from following through with abortions. The organization has paid $2.4 million in pregnant women’s bills, and the Bernings estimate that they’ve prevented more than 400 abortions. (Let Them Live asks these women to agree to not get an abortion in exchange for the financial support.) The Bernings have never really clamored for the end of Roe v. Wade, Nathan told me. But now that the ruling has been overturned, Nathan hopes that the anti-abortion movement will shift its focus to advocating for public policy to support women and families. Nonprofits like his “can provide a piece of the solution to the problem, but there’s going to have to be a government aspect to it,” he said. “The pro-life movement in general has not been thinking big enough.”
The people in this movement have fought for decades to reach this moment. They just have to decide what to do now. Nathan Berning is one of many abortion opponents who wants, more than anything, to see a substantial expansion of the social safety net. I talked with a dozen others like him—people who said that advocating for things like universal child care and a higher minimum wage should be the logical next step for the movement. But theirs are minority voices in the broader anti-abortion tent. For decades, most abortion opponents have hitched their wagon to a party that has fought tirelessly against state expansion. That alliance is going to constrain any progress toward improving outcomes for women and families.
Members of the anti-abortion movement are aware of the reality facing American women, now that abortion is going to be difficult—or impossible—to come by in many parts of the country. Most people who seek abortions cite financial concerns, and women who have been denied access to abortion are more likely to be in poverty even years down the line, according to a recent 10-year study. Now that Roe is gone, “there will probably be more unanticipated childbirths, and that’s going to have an effect on raising the extent of poverty in the United States,” Mark Rank, a social scientist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me.
Basically every member of the anti-abortion movement supports helping expectant women and families through private means, such as charities and churches. Where they differ most is on the role of government. “The same energy that inspired many to stand for hours on hot pavements with signs, make numerous calls to their congressmen, march, and selflessly give countless funds must be the same energy implored to now demand early education, food assistance, and childcare relief,” Kori Porter, the CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide—USA, told me in an email, adding that activists should prepare for a rise in need for domestic-abuse centers, foster care, and low-income housing. Charlie Camosy, an ethics professor at Creighton University School of Medicine and an anti-abortion columnist for the Religion News Service, has long advocated for paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, and expanding Medicaid. (The 26 states that will soon have the tightest abortion restrictions also have the lowest minimum wages, on average. Ten of those states have not yet expanded Medicaid.) “It’s long past time for conservative pro-lifers to take a multipronged approach to this,” Camosy told me. “They’ve been virtually nowhere on policy.”
Camosy has been heartened by recent private and public efforts—especially on the Catholic left. Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged lawmakers to address child poverty by extending the expanded child tax credit. Dioceses in California, Maryland, and Washington State have started programs to offer pregnant women free baby supplies and health services. In anticipation of Roe being overturned, the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame kicked off a new social-science project to research best practices for addressing poverty that its leaders hope will inform public policy. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah recently released a new version of his child-tax-credit legislation that a handful of anti-abortion groups have already signed on to, and this week, Senator Marco Rubio released a slate of proposals to support pregnant women and families. A few red states also extended Medicaid coverage to postpartum women.
People in Camosy’s corner are hopeful that the end of Roe will allow anti-abortion Americans to spring free from their partisan boxes and push for pro-family legislation. Not to do so would be hypocritical, they argue. Some anti-abortion Republicans may be ready to bend on the issue of government spending, especially since Donald Trump pushed the GOP in a much more populist direction; Roe’s reversal could supercharge that conversation. “There is now a really important opening for pro-life Republicans to be more open about their support of social-welfare programs,” Camosy said.
If all of this sounds a little too rosy, that’s because it probably is. “The government that governs best governs least,” as the GOP saying goes. The places in America with the strictest abortion laws are also places where suspicion of state involvement runs deep, and investing millions more in government services is a political nonstarter.
The most powerful and influential members of the anti-abortion movement are likely to keep their focus mainly on reducing the number of abortions, rather than advocating for more social spending to help women who cannot have them. They’ll work on strengthening abortion bans in red states, and on passing whatever restrictions they can in blue and purple ones. Expanding the federal social safety net “is a conversation for later,” Mallory Carroll, the vice president of communications at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told me. “Right now, we’re saving babies through gestational limits and strengthening the social resources that are out there.”
Groups like these will continue pursuing assistance for women and families the way that they always have: through nonprofits and private aid. In anticipation of a world without Roe, SBA launched a network of services for pregnant women, which come mostly from churches and other religious organizations. This approach builds on a decades-long strategy: Since Roe was decided in 1973, abortion foes have invested millions of dollars in pregnancy-resource centers that offer counseling and supplies to pregnant women; a few of those centers now provide free medical care. Last year, when Texas made abortion illegal after six weeks, the state legislature sent $100 million to these centers. Republicans in Mississippi just passed a law giving $3.5 million in tax credits to pregnancy-resource centers.
One problem with such efforts is that they’re small ball. Some of what they offer is helpful to some pregnant women, on a short-term basis. (Abortion-rights advocates would argue that the more fundamental problem is that women who want abortions aren’t able to get them.) But overall, they aren’t enough to address the scale of economic pressure facing families. “If you really want to make a dent in terms of poverty, you need to take action at the federal and state levels,” Rank, the social scientist, said. Romney’s Family Security Act proposal shows promise, Rank noted, although many progressives disapprove because it hinges on work requirements and would exclude the country’s poorest families.
The landscape of American politics shifted this week, when the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe. But even on this new terrain, Americans can probably expect much more of the same: a widening chasm between blue states and red. In the former, anti-abortion groups are much more likely to advocate for—and win—expanded government services for pregnant women and families, Mary Ziegler, a frequent Atlantic contributor and a professor at the Florida State University College of Law, told me. In Republican-dominated states, “the focus has been and will continue to be penalizing the person supplying the abortion—not helping the person seeking the abortion,” she said.
We can expect anti-abortion activists to pursue challenges to interstate travel for abortion, as well as bans on the abortion pill mifepristone. Some of the most hard-core advocates are already pushing for legislation that would punish women who have them. The Texas-based group Foundation to Abolish Abortion helped draft a Louisiana law that would allow homicide charges against women who end their pregnancies.
Abortion opponents who oppose a social safety net may come around to the idea that more social spending is the best way to reduce abortions. Restricting the supply of abortion doesn’t stop the demand for it, as studies have shown. “I would hope after a few years, [when] they realize that these laws didn’t have as much of an effect as they imagined they would, they would see a need for more,” Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia, told me. Roe’s downfall, in other words, will probably not be the moment that sends the movement in a new direction. If that moment comes, it will be further down the line.
Before Nathan Berning and his wife founded Let Them Live, Nathan was pretty conservative. He’d worked on Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign. He wasn’t a fan of the government getting involved in people’s personal business or propping up families with tax dollars. But in the past three years, his perspective changed. “I’ve seen what these moms go through firsthand,” he told me.
Berning put me in touch with Atoria, who is 26 now, and living with Kiahari in her own apartment in Sacramento. (While we were on the phone, she was trying to stop him from putting grapes in their waffle maker.) She doesn’t view the end of Roe as a moment to celebrate, necessarily. She sees it as a chance for the movement that pushed her to follow through with her pregnancy to demonstrate their commitment. “There now needs to be a domino effect of [more] government assistance and programs to support women,” she told me. Without that, overturning Roe “makes zero sense.”
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.