On Low-Income Women in Crisis Pregnancies

A reader writes:

I don’t know if I should have sent this as a comment to the announcement on your blog of the movie “Gimme Shelter”, but it reminded me that I have wanted to write to you about this for a while, and since there has been no other comment, I was wondering if anyone would read it. I have wanted to point this out for some time, however.
It has to do with a disconnect I seem to have noticed between all the efforts by pro-life Catholics to save babies from abortion, and the attitude of some Catholic people towards unmarried single mothers. I have often seen comments to the effect that social assistance is encouraging irresponsible behaviour by allowing women to have children while remaining single. However, this statement is dangerously close to saying that the “responsible” thing to do would have been to have had an abortion...

When people fall in love and follow their emotions instead of their heads, I am sure that the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy is among the last things on their minds. Even farther would be the idea that social assistance is making it possible for them to act irresponsibly. Particularly if they have been raised in a social environment where traditional morality has been ignored or rejected for some time. Plus, in the case of teen pregnancies, there is the fact that it has been established by several studies that teenagers’ brains are not even wired to think of long term consequences of their actions; apparently this maturing mostly happens in their early twenties. It is agreed that the lax sexual morality of today’s wordly people does lead to irresponsible behaviour. But to blame social assistance for this irresponsible behaviour, in my opinion, misses the point. It seems to me that people who work tirelessly to save babies from abortion need to keep in mind that a large number, or even most, of the babies that they will manage to save will end up being raised by unmarried single mothers. Therefore, to have reservations concerning social assistance to single mothers is not very logical. I would suggest that it would make more sense to view social assistance as some kind of “harm reduction” strategy. It is true that out-of-wedlock pregnancies often lead to poverty, but in my opinion the answer would be more long term support for single mothers, in a non-judgemental way. It is far from enough to simply provide them with medical assistance during the pregnancy and to give them a set of clothes for the newborn.

The attitude of “love the sinner, hate the sin” may in fact be quite inappropriate. Of course, sexual sins have been committed. But think about it: Suppose a Catholic young woman gets carried away by her emotions and falls into sin... As far as we know, she might have been to confession the next day. But the consequences of her sins, and an unwanted pregnancy, will pursue her for months afterwards, or even to the end of her life (while the similarly guilty man may just have walked away). And if we are talking of non-Catholic women, there has probably been a lot of ignorance and erroneous education in their background, we just do not know.

I remember, a long time ago, in a combox discussion about poverty (I do not remember if it was your blog or another one), when someone brought the issue of how difficult it can be for a single mother to pursue her education, or improve her skills, or go looking for a job, while having to deal with day care and other issues, some women commenters tried to turn the discussion around in order to avoid the issue of unmarried mothers by talking about widows... And somewhere else, a woman complained that the term “single parent” included women who had never married together with widows and divorced women, and argued that “women who had never married” had had a choice that the other two groups did not have to the same extent. At that time, I felt that I had to put my two cents by claiming that yes, unmarried mothers had also had a choice, the one of having an abortion or not.

If you think that this sharing of my opinions can be useful for other people, fell free to use this in any way that you might think appropriate.

I think my reader is on to something. It is indeed a curious disconnect that many prolife people who support the work of Crisis Pregnancy Centers have a strange blind spot when it comes to the state providing help for low-income women in crisis pregnancies. Recently, for instance, Al Gore told us he wanted to institute “fertility management” against the poor, as rich people so often do. Prolifers were (rightly) up in arms. On the other hand, Rand Paul stated that he basically wants to institute fertility management against the poor, as rich people so often do--and lots of prolife people came to the defense of Paul. Why? Because (we were told) it was suddenly more important to make sure that poor women get the message that they couldn't game the system by having kids than to make sure that mothers were not forced by poverty into having an abortion.

Imagine running a Crisis Pregnancy Center on this basis. A woman in a crisis pregnancy shows up, desperate for help, and instead of compassion she is grilled on how many times she's been pregnant and told, "You're just looking for free stuff. Don't expect any help from us. There's a Planned Parenthood down the street. Why don't you go there?" Because that is exactly what attempts to cap help for low income women are saying.  Their fertility needs management, meaning punishment with poverty.

In addition, there are other things that are also striking about the curious hostility of prolife people (under the hypnotic influence of libertarian ideology) to state support for women in crisis pregnancies.

First, there is the the curious assumption that low income women are A) self-impregnating; B) fornicating; and C) in need of punishment. A) is never true, but Rand Paul's proposal treats it as though it is a fact. It heaps all the punishment on the mother and child and puts enormous pressure on her to abort. Men have no responsibility or consequences at all.

B is also not necessarily true. It is possible for happily married low-income families to have a lot of kids. And, indeed, our Tradition actively encourages families to be, as the saying goes, "open to life". But legislation like that proposed by Paul (and endorsed by many prolife Catholics) proposes to punish families for doing that--all while Catholics are condemning them on pain of sin for using contraceptives. Indeed, in my experience it is not uncommon for allegedly prolife Catholics to simultaneously demand openness to life while condemning poor Catholic families for having "too many" kids if such families require public assistance.

When "prolife" Catholics talk this way, it is no huge mystery why non-Catholics or pro-contraception Catholics look on and say, "These guys aren't serious. They tie up heavy burdens for women's backs, but do not lift a finger to help them." It seems to me that if we are going to be serious about "openness to life", we Catholics have to face the fact that it means large families and that large families are, as a rule, going to be poorer families and often need help. And while private help and charity are great things and to be encouraged, nonetheless help typically comes through the state whose proper job is precisely to provide for the common good.  So in addition to our charitable work, we are to pay taxes cheerfully.

For me, the most sinister aspect of caps for low-income women, married or not, is that in making the goal is to "teach mothers responsibility" the baby ceases to be an end and becomes a means--of punishment. Now responsbility is a fine thing. But you do not teach it by forcing a mother into a choice between abortion and food for her kids. It is a bizarre thing for pro-life Catholics to agree with President Obama that a baby is "punishment" but that is exactly what capping benefits for large families aims to do.

A second strange feature of the hostility to government aid to women in crisis pregnancies is the curious notion that such aid "deprives us of the chance to be charitable." This is a curiously narcissistic take on charity. As though the important thing is my getting a chance to be charitable and not the good of the woman and child in the crisis pregnancy. It is also strange because, very simply, if we are serious about helping women in crisis pregnancies, it really should not matter how the help comes to them. If it comes because we donate to a CPC or because the state takes a few pennies from our pay to help low income women feed their kids, what difference does it make? And why not do both? The important thing is that mom is not placed in a position where she has to choose between abortion and feeding her family.

I think that some of this hostility to state aid for low-income women originates in a sort of libertarianism on overdrive. The notion is, very simply, is devoted belief in the separation of State and Everything: that anything the State sets it hand to aside from building roads and launching wars is wrong and illegitimate. But in Catholic teaching, it is the legitimate function of the state to provide for the common good and the preservation of human life trumps the good of property. So in a crisis pregnancy I think it is better that low-income women have the support necessary so that they will not be forced to choose between abortion or feeding their families.

I think this, by the way, whether the woman is married or not. At this point, some will cite St. Paul's "Him who will not work, shall not eat" and point out that fornication is wrong. True. But Paul is not writing the Epistle to the Americans. He is writing to the Church and saying, "Don't sponge off your brothers and sisters on the excuse that the Second Coming is around the corner." It's an in-house instruction for how Catholics are to conduct themselves among their fellow Christians. But to those outside the household of faith (and this basically means all our public and civil dealings) the counsel of Jesus Christ is a ridiculously lavish openhandedness: "Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you" (Matthew 5:42).Period.  Nothing about worthiness. And so I think state support for low income women should basically have the same criteria as a CPC: help them, no matter how many kids they have. Feel free to do all you can to teach them (and, by the way, their husbands and boyfriends) about chastity and give them support with NFP and so forth.. But do not predicate help on that. Do not force them to choose between feeding their kids and killing them on the theory that you are "teaching them a lesson".

Of course, the objection is that this (though, curiously not crisis pregnancy centers, which also give away free stuff to low-income women) is "enabling" sexual irresponsibility and teaching poor people to game the system. I suppose, to a degree, it is. As Jesus says, God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:45-47). If you agree to be generous you agree to be taken advantage of to some degree. But in the case of competing goods, I think the good of saving innocent human life trumps the good of property and I think it worth the risk that some (and I by no means think anything near most) will cheat a system that helps low income mothers, if poor people are given the assistance they need in order to avoid being pressured to abort.