The dispute over abortion is often framed as a struggle to “protect life” versus “protect reproductive and sexual freedom.” The Supreme Court’s likely elimination of the constitutional protection for abortion rights this June will not end this debate. Despite the suggestions of the Mississippi Solicitor General and certain Supreme Court Justices during the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health oral argument this past December, controversies over abortion will not cease if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Rather, they will be decided state by state. They will rage everywhere, including here.
The positions of the pro-life and pro-choice proponents appear intractable. But if we take a closer look at the ends that each camp seeks, and also consider the evidence that exists on how best to obtain them, there are clear legal solutions that should satisfy all sides, including first steps the Minnesota Legislature can take this term.
Pro-life supporters state that every life is sacred and should be protected from conception. Pro-life advocates presumably want viable pregnancies to yield babies who are loved and given the best start possible. Pro-choice advocates do, too. What sense does it make to knowingly doom babies to a life of poverty and neglect in the absence of effective programs to support mothers and infants?
As all parents know, babies are utterly helpless and dependent on parents to love them and care for their every need. What happens when babies are unwanted? We know from studies of unwanted infants who were institutionally fed and housed but otherwise neglected that such deprivation, “can have a profound and lasting psychological impact despite subsequent environmental enrichment in well resourced and supportive families.” Children neglected in the home are also more likely to suffer lasting negative psychosocial consequences, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and insecure relationships.
There are surprisingly few studies examining the effects of unintended pregnancy on children and mothers. But we do know from the Turnaway Study, which compares long-term outcomes in families with babies born to women who were denied an abortion versus those who were able to obtain one, that both poor maternal bonding and impoverishment were significantly more common in families where a desired abortion was denied than where an abortion was obtained and there was a subsequent pregnancy. Women denied abortions were more likely to remain in violent relationships than those who obtained a wanted abortion. They experienced significantly more financial distress than the group that obtained an abortion, were no more likely to live with a male partner, and were more likely to live alone with their child. Diminished economic status also impacted older, existing children of women who were unable to access a desired abortion.
The only person who should be permitted to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy is the person who will bear primary responsibility to love, raise, and care for the resulting child. That is the pregnant person. No activist, religious institution, court, or state can make such a consequential decision for a competent adult.
We can best ensure that babies have loving homes and do not suffer from undue emotional or economic deprivation by taking several important steps. We know that providing everyone with the tools they need to plan and support their pregnancies – including abortions where necessary – result in wanted children with healthier starts. We know that providing hassle-free financial support to low-income families yield better outcomes for children. We know that both children raised in thriving, low-violence communities and their parents do better than those in neighborhoods and homes plagued by violence. We know that providing children with access to a high quality public education can yield upward social mobility, and that working parents need subsidized, high quality childcare for their well-being and that of their children.
The Minnesota Legislature can start by enacting SF 731/HF 259, the Protect Reproductive Options Act, to put Minnesotans in control of their own reproductive futures. It should also expand the Working Family Credit, increase child care assistance, and undertake significant police and public safety reforms to help reduce violence against our communities, among other measures. These steps will help support the flourishing of our communities and children, without imposing one way of life on everyone else. These are steps we should all support.
Laura Hermer is a professor of Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.