The second part of a three-part series on voting Pro-Life
After our lengthy discussion on making institutional changes favoring motherhood, the question now is this: do we have evidence that a mother-centric society makes abortion rates fall significantly? First, we’ll look at general government initiatives that may help and then review a study about a place where motherhood confers profound prestige upon women of all ages.
The problem with socialized programs as panacea to abortion
We might intuit that universal health care, extended paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, and so forth can all help to create a mother-centered society. But they are they focused enough to make a general claim on their effectiveness? Even those countries that have socialized many or all of those programs still have distressingly high abortion ratios (the ratio of abortions to live births). In fact, Sweden’s abortion ratio outpaces that of the United States by almost double even with its renowned socialized healthcare system and generous parental leave policies. France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, also countries with fairly robust socialized healthcare, including widespread contraceptive access, each have abortion ratios almost 50% higher than the United States. Of course, in certain other Nordic and Northern European countries with socialized healthcare, the ratios are appreciably lower, showing how much cultural differences change abortion demand.
While many claims have been made about the Affordable Care Act’s effect on reducing abortion demand, the assumptions of the studies have been questioned by some experts and observers, citing social complexities that have yet to be unknotted. Assuming the ACA had an effect, the aforementioned socialized systems in Sweden and Western Europe give a grim picture that the effect has a potentially low ceiling, leaving hundreds of thousands of preborn at risk no matter how much America socializes healthcare. But if any abortion reduction from the ACA is due to wider use of abortifacient contraceptives like shots or implants, as studies claim, all we may have done is pushed up the hour of death for countless preborns. Nevertheless, if certain elements of socialized healthcare depress the abortion rate significantly without bioethical conflict, then pro-lifers of all ideological stripes must work to maximize their implementation or, in the case of conservatives, offer equivalent market-based alternatives.
However, universalizing healthcare and childcare services can never distract from the mission of institutional renewal. Targeted reforms must be taken as the baseline operation moving forward. A fully pro-life exaltation of motherhood in the public arena is critical for making abortion unthinkable. And that’s what happened in a place few people would suspect.
Hope from an unlikely place
If socialized healthcare and other programs yield mixed results in lowering the abortion rate, then is there evidence that building society around motherhood actually makes a difference? Are there places around the globe that make abortion unthinkable? If so, what does America need to do to make it unthinkable here, too?
A 2011 sociological study has revealed one of the few places on earth, surprisingly, where abortion can be widely unthinkable given the circumstances: the impoverished favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Despite crushing poverty, rampant drug problems and homicide rates—one in every four persons reported a homicide in their family—the study author observed “many poorer Brazilians do not even consider this option [of abortion]”.
But how? Two of the major reasons cited: (1) The prestige of motherhood and (2) vigorous pro-life preaching from local clergy.
Young women in the favelas gained prestige, status, and autonomy in their society upon becoming mothers. Grandmothers gained additional prestige or re-experienced prestige with the birth of grandchildren. Motherhood was a rite of passage, and viewed as “uniformly positive”. A young woman said her community viewed her as “more responsible” upon becoming a mother. Having children was a point of pride, a contribution to society. Both boys and girls saw children as a way to bring permanence to a volatile, unstable society.
One pastor observed that “young or unmarried mothers who came to their church were ‘… seen not as women to be pitied, but as women finding courage in Christ, even without a husband. They are working, fighting for their children to have a different life, despite the community we live in.’”
And so motherhood was so highly valued that young women, even girls, carved out a portion of the favela community that gave no thought to abortion. Of course, there were attendant problems with teenage pregnancy due to the exaltation of motherhood; childbearing must never mutate into a commodification of children, where children serve the social and psychological needs of parents, or are used as a means to an end even if the end is establishing stability amid social turmoil. The clues from the favelas yield only a partial picture, a blueprint, for how abortion can be unthinkable even amid the most harrowing of conditions. But the real challenge is building the same attitudes amid the distractions and idols of American culture. In this way, the experience of favelas speaks in a particular way to our social and religious institutions. The church needs to move well beyond Respect for Life Sundays and start detailing motherhood’s exalted place in its history and theology. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches, with their Marian devotion, already have the foundation for a reinvigoration of motherhood spirituality. It must, in its prayers, public pronouncements, and ministries renew language and actions to exalt motherhood. A new, more-spirited tongue must be broadcast to the world about the Gospel of Motherhood , whose thematic elements are already strongly evident in the past presentations of the Gospel of Life. All Christian denominations, regardless of Marian theology, can attempt to replicate the strong preaching methods used in the Rio favelas.
And so we see that churches, too, are not immune to institutional renewal, especially when they have already proven themselves in the outskirts of Rio.
Should we have hope that we can bring all the changes listed the first two parts of this discussion? In Part III, we look at pro-motherhood politics and investigate how the past year, 2020, has altered our vision of the what kind of social change is possible.