Margaret Renkl: What American mothers really need

If red-state legislators truly want to limit abortions they must create conditions that give women an genuine choice.

(Courtesy Margaret Renkl via The New York Times) The author with her grandmother, her great grandmother, right, and her mother, rear.

Nashville • I’ve been watching anti-abortion bills sweep the red states this season, and it occurs to me that the week of Mother’s Day might be a good time for a red-state mother like me to weigh in. I fervently support a woman’s right to choose, but I still spend a lot of time thinking about how Republican legislators could achieve their real goal without also trying to undo settled legal precedent.

First, a reminder: Women ended unwanted pregnancies long before Roe v. Wade made abortion safe and legal in the United States, and women will continue to do so even if Roe is overturned. During the 1950s and ‘60s, before reliable birth control became widely available, between 200,000 and 1.2 million women illegally ended unwanted pregnancies in the United States each year.

To make a real difference in the abortion rate, birth control needs to be affordable and easy to obtain. Instead, our legislators consistently fight to protect employers and insurance companies that want to opt out of paying for birth control in health care plans. Comprehensive sex-education courses significantly reduce adolescent pregnancies, but red-state legislatures favor abstinence-only sex ed, which has no effect on teenage pregnancy rates. Some of these legislators it seems, don’t understand the difference between birth control and abortion in the first place.

The demographics can be both unexpected and depressingly familiar. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers, and 75 percent are living below the poverty line or are categorized as low-income. So it’s worth asking: How many of those women would choose to continue their pregnancies if they could afford another child? If they lived in a country that made parenting even modestly more manageable?

This is an important question to ask at any time, but it’s a particularly important question to ask now, during this coordinated assault on reproductive rights. For poor women, an unwanted pregnancy can make an already hard life feel impossible.

The longitudinal Turnaway Study, which followed women in 21 states, found that “being denied an abortion increased the chance that women were living in poverty, were unemployed, had overdue debt or had experienced bankruptcies or evictions,” The New York Times reported last December.

Diana Greene Foster, a demographer at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the study, explained that many women decide whether to continue an unplanned pregnancy by weighing the long-term economic consequences of having a child. “If somehow magically every pregnancy was supported and all lives would be rosy, people would be taking that into account,” she told The Times. “Instead, people are looking at their circumstances and thinking things are going to be really hard. And all the things they think are right, because we see those outcomes among the people who are denied abortions.”

Unless you’re wealthy, being a parent in this country can be extremely hard. Unpaid help from relatives and friends, if you’re lucky enough to have it, goes only so far. You might have backup when a child gets sick and needs to come home from school unexpectedly, but you probably can’t count on someone else to pay for the child to go to college. Parents in the United States are largely on their own.

Support can make a huge difference in pregnancy and family outcomes, and not just for poor women. I’m not talking about Denmark- or Sweden-level support. I’m talking about modest but truly life-changing resources that people in other wealthy countries take for granted. Resources like paid family leave, quality day care and a predictable work schedule (a necessity if day care is to be an option). Strong public schools and affordable higher education. Decent health care, a safe place to live, reliable transportation and healthy food. Surely it goes without saying that nobody — not mothers, not fathers, not one child — should have to sleep under a bridge or go hungry for a single day in a country as wealthy as the United States.

But Republican legislators across the red states are in lock step when it comes to suppressing family-friendly policies. They oppose a minimum wage that keeps pace with productivity or at least the cost of living. They oppose expanding Medicaid. They’re finally getting closer to Democrats on the need for affordable day care, but they oppose student loan relief. They are actively trying to destroy public education.

There are no family-friendly measures that would reduce the abortion rate in this country to zero, of course. The social safety net can’t address all the reasons a woman would want to end a pregnancy. But we’ve tried the conservative approach to reducing abortions before, and history has shown that outlawing abortion would end only legal abortion. It’s long past time to give the liberal approach a concerted try by weaving the social safety net as tightly as we can.

We already know, for example, that free birth control reduces unintended pregnancies, so it’s not a leap to expect a significant decrease in abortion if we make reliable birth control free and easily accessible. We would almost certainly see many fewer abortions if we genuinely supported women with policies that made parenting less expensive and less overwhelming. But the so-called right-to-life elected officials aren’t particularly interested in life — at least not in life as most people actually live it.

The states with the strongest abortion restrictions are also the states with the weakest social safety nets. According to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press, “States with some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws are also some of the hardest places to have and raise a healthy child, especially for the poor.” In another recent study, the 10 worst places to have a baby were states dominated by Republicans.

Even if this country enacted every family-friendly policy imaginable, access to safe abortions would still be necessary. No matter what other fundamental questions this debate includes, it’s always going to come down to a woman’s right to the integrity of her own body. Both safety-net liberals and anti-choice conservatives believe their positions protect human life, but only liberals give women full say in how human life gets protected.

If red-state legislators truly want to limit abortions — legal and illegal — they must create conditions that give women a genuine choice. For Mother’s Day to mean anything at all, women need both legal access to abortion and meaningful support for families. Because flowers just won’t cut it anymore.

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.