A wave of radical anti-abortion laws has passed in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri over the past few months, limiting women’s access to healthcare and, in the case of the Georgia Heartbeat Bill, banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest. The legislative endgame for these bills is a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that gave women a constitutional right to privacy should they choose to seek abortion and set trimester limits on when abortion is allowed. Anti-abortion activists are pursuing this agenda in the name of limiting the number of abortions performed despite that fact that abortion bans have historically resulted in increased abortion rates.
According to Amnesty International, in countries where abortion is prohibited, some 37 per 1,000 people still have abortions; in countries where abortion is legal, 34 out of 1,000 people seek the procedure. The substantive difference between these two scenarios is the safety of the procedure and the women receiving it. When women have illegal abortions, they die. Which is all to say that anti-abortion activists should — if they are indeed looking to lower abortion rates — find an alternative means of doing so. One viable approach that could be pursued within existing laws and without attempting to control women’s bodies: actually making men pay child support.
Studies have proven time and time again that comprehensive sex education and access to free or discounted contraceptives goes a lot farther in limiting the number of abortions than banning them and sex-ed outright. This makes a great deal of sense. Contraception is the most obvious way to avoid abortions. (As the memes say, 100 percent of unwanted pregnancies are caused by men.) But contraception has not historically been pursued in equal partnership. There are cultural and gender-based reasons for this, but let’s focus on the economic one. Men who accidentally get women pregnant generally don’t face real financial consequences.
As it stands, only 50 percent of custodial parents have a child support agreement and women constitute some 82 percent of single custodial parents. And even those numbers obscure the severity of the child support gap because the men that do pay don’t pay much. The median amount received by a custodial parent with a child support payment is just $3,447 annually — that’s $287 a month. The average cost of center-based infant care in the United States can cost up to $1,230 a month. The average cost of raising a child (not including college), is about $250,000 from birth until the child turns 18.
As if that wasn’t galling enough, according to a 2018 census report, just 70 percent of primary custodial parents owed child support receive any payments from the other parent and less than half of custodial parents (single parents who have primary custody of their children, largely moms) receive the fully owed amount of their child support. Most of these parents, some 85 percent, are women. And single moms live at much higher rates of poverty than single dads (almost 30 percent for single moms and 17 percent for single dads). Only 40 percent of parents who live below the poverty level and are owed child support actually received that support.
So let’s consider again how abortion bans effect men and women. They do not meaningfully change male incentives around contraception — the whole “it doesn’t feel as good” bit isn’t going anywhere — while putting women at not only catastrophic health risk, but catastrophic financial risk.
Women understand this.
That risk is only exacerbated by the rising costs of raising kids. Recent research suggests that the number of children born into single-parent households is rising. Currently 1 in 4 children under 21 years old has a parent living outside the household, and that number has been increasing, according to research by Dr. Jennifer Glass at University of Texas at Austin. Being a single parent is difficult, especially when studies show that moms are projected to become the sole breadwinners for their families over their children’s lifetimes, a huge shift from previous economic models that show a more traditional mode of family: one male breadwinner and a mom at home. And as social supports weaken, parenting is expensive. That’s a problem.
Some 40 percent of women who get abortions cite the fact that they are not financially prepared to raise a child and 75 percent of women who obtain abortions have incomes less than 200 percent over the federal policy level: that’s just 24,000 dollars a year at most for a single person. In addition, 59 percent of women who have abortions are already moms. What can we conclude from this? Lack of contraception increases abortion rates and financial concerns increase abortion rates. There’s a lot that state or federal policy can do to address that, but those solutions have not yet materialized.
Let’s look at Alabama, which passed one of the most stringent of the anti-abortion bills. The law bans abortions at 6 weeks — just two weeks after a missed period — and does not provide exceptions for rape or incest. The only time a woman can obtain an abortion is if the fetus is incompatible with life or the woman will die if she continues to carry the fetus to term. Alabama, for those keeping track, ranks 50th among US states in public education funding, 250,000 Alabaman children currently live in poverty and over 800,000 Alabamans total live at the poverty level, Alabama has a maternal mortality rate of 11 deaths per 100,000 births for women in general and over double that rate for black women in the state. In Alabama, the 6th poorest state in the country, 15.8 percent of adults and almost 5 percent of minors are uninsured. There is no reason to believe that jailing women for seeking healthcare will do more to lower the abortion rate that addressing systemic problems that affect children and parents. Nonetheless, lawmakers seem intent on criminalizing pregnancy over asking men to do their fair share or asking the state to do its fair share — children are, after all, pretty important to the longterm economic success of a region.
Maybe better social welfare programs are coming. Maybe universal child care, a monthly allowance for parents, and improved access to pre-schools will change the financial consideration of parenthood. But costs remain higher than they have ever been. Given that financial burden is one of the most common reasons that women choose to terminate their pregnancies, putting the onus on men to make sure they actually pay that child support would engender behaviors that might actually lower the abortion rate.
Finances aren’t the only reason that women terminate pregnancies; just one of them. But if women were supported rather than abandoned by the government and the courts, there’s every reason to believe that abortion rates would decrease — and not at the expense of women’s wellbeing.