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'A time for choosing': What's next for the pro-life cause?

The Supreme Court case Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization has the potential to revisit, or even revise, much of the settled jurisprudence around legalized abortion in the United States. So — what makes this case, and this moment, different?

Charlie Camosy sat down with Patrick Brown, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Kathryn Lopez, director of the Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society at the National Review Institute, to talk about where things stand, and what comes next for the pro-life cause.

Credit: Alamy Stock Image

Camosy: I think I know the answer to this question, but let me ask it anyway: why do you think this a key moment for the pro-life movement when it comes to thinking about how we respond to, for lack of a better way of saying it, abortion demand?

Brown: If the Court does allow the Mississippi law [banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy] to stand, we’re going to be in a whole new ballgame. States will have much wider latitude to protect children in the womb, but the pro-choice side will also be energized and fighting hard to make those victories hard to come by.

So, if we want to achieve meaningful pro-life victories, it’s going to be important to reduce the need for abortion, not just reduce access to it. We have to show that we are accompanying women facing crisis pregnancies through public policy as well as through the heroic work so many centers and volunteers already do.

Lopez: This is really a time for choosing, to borrow a phrase. Do we truly stand with women, and children, and families, in ways beyond what we’re doing now?

The people who are on the front lines of the pro-life movement do tremdnous work at women’s care centers and maternity homes. I often point to the charism of the Sisters of Life, founded by the late Cardinal O’Connor in New York, as the way we are all called to live to some extent. They, as consecrated religious, are set apart, showing us what we ought to be striving for. Do we live our lives as heralds of the Gospel of Life?

One of the most important initiatives I’ve seen, perhaps in my life, is the Walking with Moms in Need initiative from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s not another document that goes largely unread — it is a challenge to each and every parish in America to do exactly what the name suggests. The materials they provide guide a self-assessment, to see what the parish does and what the needs are.

One of the disadvantages we have as Catholics is, because the institutional Church is so enormous, we can tend to assume needs are being met. This is absolutely [what we assume] when it comes to foster care and adoption.

If a scared pregnant woman stopped you while you were kneeling after Mass or during a midday prayer visit, would you know how to help her avoid having to have an abortion? Would the parish secretary or pastor know what to say or do if she knocked on the rectory or parish office door?

Even more fundamentally, do the young women — and men – know who would support them if they found themselves pregnant unexpectedly? Or would they think we would be all judgment? We really need to live the culture of life more radically.

Camosy: Let’s hold off on policy discussion for a moment. Kathryn, can I ask you specifically about (1) how you’re thinking about these important plans taking effect and (2) how wide an impact they could have?

As you know, I’m all-in with the Sisters of Life, but their amazing work is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the incredible need of abortion-minded women throughout the country. Even if every Catholic parish totally revamped itself to meet the laudable and important goals coming out of Walking with Moms in Need (an unlikely proposition, I’m sure you’ll agree) the need around the country would still be incredible, right?

The work of the Church is absolutely essential in this space, no question. But won’t we need to go beyond this to meet the need?

Lopez: We have to start somewhere. This is the stuff of Mother Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pierre Toussaint, Katharine Drexel, Dorothy Day, the list goes on. Yes, the poor we are always going to have with us. But what are you and I going to do? Rather than bemoan all the evils and problems and injustices, let’s do something already.

Yes, the Sisters of Life are a drop in the bucket. But if all of us actually start thinking like them and feel an urgency, like we do have to account for our limited time here, things would be looking different.

We’ve talked about this amongst ourselves many times: The Catholic parish totally needs to be thinking differently — do the Beatitudes mean anything to us or not? — and focus like a laser on meeting people on common ground and praying for conversion. We need to be living radically for Christ, like the people I mentioned earlier who stalk me in the best of ways.

Our policy has to reinforce this. But our witness is essential. We have to be creative enough to imagine that living the Gospel of Life can really be our reality. And most especially as we wait for the arrival of the Divine Child!

Camosy: I totally agree that our witness is essential, that it is absolutely “time to do something already,” and that those who tweet out their favored policies while watching Netflix aren’t doing something.

But it seems important to think of our witness and “doing something” in ways which see public policy and private action as mutually reinforcing our goals of reducing abortion demand. With that in mind, what sorts of public policies should the pro-life movement support?

Brown: Yes. I fully agree with everything Kathryn said about the need for witness and action on the individual and parish level. But as you suggest, Charlie, pro-lifers need to be thinking about a systemic approach to reducing the need for abortion.

That starts by devoting resources to moms facing crisis pregnancies - programs like the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition assistance program, which gives financial assistance in purchasing food and referrals to health care and other community resources to pregnant and new moms and their kids.

Some states have or are planning to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage for moms for up to a year post-birth. There’s been evidence that home visiting programs can improve child outcomes and reduce maternal mortality, and there’s been bipartisan support for investing in those kinds of approaches.

To me, these things should be no-brainers for pro-lifers who are serious about caring for both mother and child. Of course, the needs of women facing a crisis pregnancy don’t end when the baby is born. So, over the long-term, we need to be thinking about our approach to economic policy making, and how to make it more pro-family.

A lot of our welfare programs, for example, came into being when we were exceptionally concerned about single parenthood, and some states will actually take benefits away from families if they have additional children while on public assistance.

But in an era of declining birth rates, and single parenthood becoming relatively less pressing, we need to be willing to rebalance our approach.

Obviously I’d like it if the pro-life movement had been championing these policies all along! But if we get a partial or complete overturning of Roe from the Court, it will no longer be optional for the pro-life movement to pursue a more comprehensive policy agenda oriented around families, it will be absolutely compulsory.

Lopez: Agree. Conservative pro-lifers ought to be not afraid to spend money where it can really make a difference for mothers and children and families. And the work of the likes of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is essential in making sure the faith-based civil society aspect of how we can make abortion implausible works: by inundating women with resources.

Camosy: Our mutual friend Erika Bachiochi recently argued in the New York Times that the kind of “structural change” that “real justice requires” includes “universal access to health care; dignified work with just wages and full benefits; increased economic support for child-raising families and the removal of marriage penalties; criminal justice reform; foster care reform; school choice; funds for community colleges; and many more.”

Can the pro-life movement start now to push Republicans to work with Democrats on these policies? Surely there is all kinds of common ground here that would reduce abortion demand. Indeed, there’s much in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan that can be salvaged along these lines. Why can’t pro-lifers push “our people,” not just Republicans, but Democrats like Joe Manchin, to get to 60 votes in the Senate on a version of BBB which saves the lives of babies and supports their mothers?

Brown: I certainly agree with Erika that there should be a greater willingness for Republicans and Democrats to work together on policies that can improve the lives of parents from all walks of life, as you have written about so prolifically, Charlie.

Unfortunately I think BBB is trying to do too much in too scattershot a way to merit the support of moderates and conservatives. Due to a mixture of interest-group politics and Congressional budget rules, the bill is trying to be all things to all people without committing to doing them well.

For example, the bill attempts to expand the Child Tax Credit, which I have encouraged conservatives to support in the past. But it could have been made much stronger by incorporating some of the principles of the version of the tax credit introduced by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) last spring.

The BBB approach to child care would err too much on the side of subsidizing center-based care, which is not what most parents want, and runs the real risk of crowding out faith-based providers. And the biggest sum of money in the version of the bill that passed the House, about $550 billion, is earmarked for climate change, which certainly has a tangential connection to a more pro-life world, but is far enough attenuated to leave room for prudential disagreements.

So my preference would be for Congress to go back to the drawing board on BBB instead of trying to salvage it. To be addressed in a meaningful and comprehensive way, topics like child care or education policy are going to require the hard work of legislation and compromise, rather be thrown into than an omnibus approach that falls short.

Lopez: Erika is a treasure – her “The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision” can help guide a new understanding of who women are at their essence and how politics can better respect that reality. I totally appreciate your sense of urgency, Charlie, but I agree with Patrick that we need a robust coalition that will fight for policies that help families flourish more long-term. Though I’m all for little victories when they can happen.

Camosy: There’s obviously more to say here, but it seems like there’s hope to continue to work across political differences for the very good — and, indeed, baby-life-saving — things that are in BBB. In my view, there’s just no reason to wait until this summer.

Do you agree with that? And, if so, where are we in the process of that realignment?

Brown: There are no shortages of strong opinions about the four years of the Trump administration, but one inarguable result has been the opening up of previously-sacrosanct orthodoxies on the right. There is a lot more room for policy creativity among conservatives who care about families first than there was a decade ago, as evidenced by proposals like the one from Sen. Romney I mentioned earlier.

I don’t know if a more family-focused, working-class-centric agenda on the right will ever get close to a Christian Democrat-style party like we see in Europe, but I do think there is a pathway forward for conservatives to be less concerned about government spending in the abstract, and more willing to think about what we’re willing to spend on.

Obviously there are a lot of things that could derail that project - the current bout with high inflation, for example, is causing those of us who had been pretty blithe about proposing new spending or programs to have an eye towards the long-term fiscal picture.

Certain strains on the right are interested in more of a cultural conservatism than a social one, with abortion and life issues being put on the back burner in favor of attacks on critical race theory or “owning the libs.”

And I do think there will always be a form of limited-government skepticism towards any proposal that goes beyond tax cuts that the right will have to negotiate. But the recognition that families are not immune to economic pressures, and that many seeking abortion do so out of a sense of being trapped into it and having no other options, is helping some on the pro-family right re-consider their past opposition to certain approaches to family policy, and is certainly something I’m hoping to help continue to flesh out into practical approaches in my work at EEPC.

Lopez: At National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru has been writing for the better part of two decades – and has testified to Congress, among other things – about the need for family tax credits. Before Donald Trump became a thing, there were the reformicons. And whatever one thinks about the Donald Trump years, I was pleased by the advocacy for paid family leave.

I don’t know what the future of conservatism is, which seems like a hot mess right now if you look at it as Republican party politics. But it has never been that. The conservative movement has been a place of thoughtful, rooted policy proposals, and there’s really no denying that the family is hurting and it has become something of a luxury to be able to afford one.

Again, this is a time for making some serious choices. And those of us who see the immiseration of women from abortion must make helping them, for their life and their children’s, a top priority. Again, that’s about policy, but it first has to be about the heart. We need to be challenged by the people who are on the front lines of the pro-life movement — the sidewalk counselors and ministry leaders and doctors and nurses and courageous moms — and listen to them and craft civil-society initiatives and policies that serve them.

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