After half a century, the struggle against the cruel and radical abortion regime imposed on our society by the Supreme Court may be nearing its end.
The pro-life movement, derided at times as naive even by some who share its goals, may be about to win a great victory for justice by having worked through, not around or against, the framework of our constitutional system. Its success would stand as one of the great moral achievements of our society. But the end of Roe would mark the beginning of another phase in the struggle to protect the unborn, as the pro-life movement labors to ensure that every child is not only protected by law but welcomed in life.
Persuasion will be all the more important as we seek to change laws to protect the unborn. And democratic persuasion will require putting our case in terms that can appeal to those who don’t share all our premises. This often means placing what we are against in the more inviting context of what we are for—showing how saying “no” to something harmful is essential in order to say “yes” to something needful. In America after Roe, that should mean putting the case for rejecting and restricting abortion in the context of a larger case for welcoming children and supporting families. And we might be handed a peculiar opportunity on that front by one of the more cynical arguments made by the defenders of abortion.
When the fight moves to the legislative arena, we are sure to hear some version of the view that pro-lifers want to limit women’s options while providing no support to children and their families. As former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts famously put it back in the 1980s, “the Moral Majority supports legislators who oppose abortions but also oppose child nutrition and day care. From their perspective, life begins at conception and ends at birth.”
This is little more than hollow sneering, of course. And it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly amount to an argument for killing children. But rather than respond to it defensively, we should call this cynical bluff and see it as an opportunity to make our society more supportive of parents and more welcoming to children.
After Roe, in the states and at the national level, the case for protecting children by law should be attached to an agenda for providing greater financial support for them and their parents when such support is needed. This is not because any shortage of public support could justify abortion, but because help for parents and children is a worthy public goal. Parents do the most important work of our society. Children bear the promise of our future. If better meeting their core needs could also persuade more Americans to restrict the practice of abortion, that would be a win-win proposition.
To begin with, support might involve recognizing the existence of a child before birth in the present framework of our family policy. Making the parents of an unborn child eligible for the federal child tax credit, for instance, would allow expectant parents to receive $3,600 a year, beginning during the pregnancy. Other child-based eligibility for state and federal assistance (for instance, for the Earned Income Tax Credit or food stamps) could likewise help parents during pregnancy, when the demands and costs of parenthood begin.
Another element of a pro-life policy agenda would seek to make adoption attainable for more families. The costs of adopting a child domestically vary dramatically but can easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. Congress has sought to help families confronting these costs, but the support could be better tailored to their needs. The federal adoption tax credit should be made refundable, for instance, so that it is available to families with lower incomes. A policy of this sort would enable many more families to afford the one-time costs associated with adoption. States should be pressed to make similar benefits available—ideally as straightforward subsidy support, which a few states now provide. And they should simplify the legal process and provide more staff and support to facilitate adoptions. In the wake of Roe, every state law seeking to restrict abortion should also propose to make adoption more accessible.
New parents should also have greater access to parental leave to care for newborns. Congress could establish a new federal benefit, funded by a simple payroll tax, to provide some income replacement for up to eight weeks of leave for new parents. If a straightforward benefit proves politically unattainable, Congress could pursue more convoluted paths—for instance, permitting new parents to draw on future Social Security benefits (slightly reducing the benefits they will receive at retirement), allowing Flexible Spending Account dollars to be used for wage replacement after the birth or adoption of a child, or permitting new parents to use existing per-child benefits (including those currently available only to subsidize commercial daycare) to fund some period of parental leave.
The existing array of per-child benefits could be simplified and reinforced to offer significant and straightforward support to parents, which they could use as they see fit. Sen. Mitt Romney, for instance, has proposed combining all existing federal per-child benefits into one monthly benefit worth $4,200 a year per child up to age five and then $3,000 per child up to age seventeen, regardless of a family’s tax liability. Romney would pay for this benefit not only by combining existing ones but also by eliminating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (which the new benefit would replace) and the state and local tax deduction. This general approach, perhaps combined with work requirements or otherwise adjusted, offers a promising way to offset the unfair treatment of parents in our entitlement system and to support the crucial work they do—whether that means helping them pay for daycare, making it easier for a parent to stay home with children, or enabling other choices now made difficult by financial burdens.
This is far from a comprehensive agenda, of course. It is merely a suggestive list, and one focused in particular on financial assistance. But it gestures toward a politics that puts families first, and shows how restrictions on abortion could be linked to support for parents and children.
By supporting policies that help families, the pro-life movement can do more than call the pro-abortion bluff. It can sketch the framework of a less divisive, more constructive politics. The end of Roe will mark a beginning as well. Among other things, it should inaugurate the family-oriented politics that America has long needed.
Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.