Discover more from The Pelican
March 2021 Edition
We're back after a brief intermission
Hi, I’m Peter Blair and you’re receiving this email because you signed up for The Pelican, a pro-life newsletter. This newsletter is (usually) released once a month, on or about the first Monday of the month. If you like what you read, you can subscribe or share below; if you don’t, you can unsubscribe at the bottom of the email.
In this edition:
New report just dropped
Are abortion decisions inaccurately represented on TV?
Child allowances and pro-natalism
In February, Americans United for Life released Defending Life 2021, the latest version of their annual report on state-level pro-life initiatives. The publication contains their updated “Life List” ranking, which is “based on our comprehensive analysis of each state’s law and policy protections for human life from conception to natural death”:
I wrote previously about the AUL’s life list, and how earlier year’s ranking shows that a state’s legal restrictions on abortion do not always match its abortion rate—though any lessons to be drawn from these kind of mismatches are nuanced.
The report also contains a useful overview of what happened in the states in 2020 (pages 19-21) and a profile of every state, including “summaries of their existing laws and AUL’s recommendations for future pro-life policy [in that state].” These profiles are instructive for getting a glimpse into the laws or bills pro-lifers may advocate for in the coming year(s) in the relevant states. Amidst a continued flurry of pro-life and pro-choice state activity—there have been recent developments in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana, Idaho, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, Arizona, and Arkansas, among other states—the AUL report provides a useful framework for understanding the main lines of pro-life activity. In particular, it mentions two main areas of abortion legislation AUL recommends, with each area containing several specific legislative recommendations: The Infants’ Protection Project and the Women’s Protection Project (pages 221-229 of the report).
One hope, of course, is that some of these laws are challenged, make their way to the Supreme Court, and give the Court a change to scale back Roe and Casey further. A theme of the report is that the Court’s decision in June Medical was not the blow to the pro-life cause it first appeared to be. One section says that June Medical “leaves Roe and Casey radically unsettled,” and that some of AUL’s legislative recommendations go towards helping to set up test cases to push Roe—which is ‘teetering’—over the edge. It remains to be seen if this take on June Medical will prove true, though, as the report points out, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (in Hopkins v. Jegley) did use reasoning from June Medical to uphold four Arkansas abortion restrictions that a lower court had ruled against.
This take on June Medical is of a piece with AULs’s Senior Counsel Clarke Forsythe’s response, in the report, to an October 2020 piece in First Things magazine. The piece is a review by historian Daniel K. Williams (whom I interviewed here) of a new book entitled Abortion and the Law in America, by law professor Mary Ziegler. Williams uses his review to trace how the debate over abortion evolved from one between two competing rights claims to one over access. This is true on both sides, but Williams especially zeroes in on the pro-life side: “Sometime in the 1980s,” he writes “the [pro-life] movement’s lawyers lost hope of ever passing sweeping protections of human life, and they shifted their strategy toward regulations designed to restrict abortion access. They gained a few victories with this strategy, but they forfeited the rhetorical high ground.”
I’m very sympathetic to this analysis, and took issue with the strategy behind June Medical on similar grounds. It’s on these same grounds that I would be skeptical of aspects of AUL’s Women’s Protection Project. Forsythe’s defense of this approach is, basically, that it works (that it has kept the abortion issue alive politically, given pro-lifers traction in the courts, and the like) and that focusing on access in the courts does not prevent pro-lifers from making rights-based arguments in other contexts. These points seem correct in a basic sense, but Williams is right that this approach has costs, and those costs need to be counted. You can’t really cleanly cordon off what happens in the courts, and laundering first-order rights debates through somewhat dishonest proxy debates hurts, rather than helps, the ability of pro-lifers to witness persuasively to their cause in the medium-and long-term.
The Washington Post recently ran an opinion from contributing columnist Kate Cohen arguing that TV shows and movies overrepresent women who choose to carry an unexpected/unwanted pregnancy to term. Too many shows, Cohen said, fail to show the women in question even considering or discussing abortion. While she admits this may happen in real life, Cohen suggests it happens less often than these representations would lead you to believe.
In the piece, Cohen links to research to support her claim that “most women” faced with unexpected/unwanted pregnancies don’t carry their pregnancies to term. The link goes to a summary of a study that was itself published in 2020 in the The Lancet Global Health. According to the summary, the study found that “more than half of unintended pregnancies (61%) end in abortion.” If you look at the study itself, however, that’s a global number. The research did indeed find that 69% of unexpected pregnancies in Europe and North America ended in abortion in the period 1990-1994. But in the period 2015-2019 (the latest dates included), only 49% of these pregnancies did, a decline of 29%.
This is a consistent with a 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine (h/t the Pillar) that found that “the percentage of unintended pregnancies that ended in abortion remained stable during the period studied (40% in 2008 and 42% in 2011).” If you are talking about TV shows or movies set in contemporary America, then, it would be inaccurate to base your portrayals on the idea that “most women” have abortions when faced with unexpected pregnancies.
This is just one of the criticisms that I would make of Cohen’s piece, but Steph Herold, a pro-choice “researcher studying abortion on TV & film,” had her own critique, in which, among other things, she claimed that Cohen downplayed the number of shows that do portray characters that have abortions. In the course of her comments, Herold linked to a database she maintains with another researcher that complies “all film and television depictions available to viewers in the United States in which a character obtains an abortion, or discloses having one in the past.”
Out of curiosity, I looked up the TV show Friday Night Lights in the database. Sure enough, it lists three episodes from the show’s fourth season that concern a teenager’s decision to get an abortion. It does not mention, however, an earlier plotline about an unexpected pregnancy in the show’s third season. Jason Street, a former football player paralyzed by a bad tackle, has a one-night stand with a waitress (Erin), who winds up pregnant. They are both 19. Erin, it seems, is seriously considering having an abortion. “This is my body and I’m going to make the ultimate decision. You were a one-night stand,” she tells Jason. For this part, Jason thought his accident had rendered him infertile, and he wants to be a father and a support to Erin. For him, the pregnancy is “a miracle, a blessing from God.” “You got a human life in there,” he tells Erin. By promising to support her—“I will be there with you every day. You won’t be the only one living with it. 100%. Anything you ask, anything you need, day in, day out, I will be there”—he wins her over and she decides not to have an abortion.
It makes sense that the database wouldn’t mention this plotline, as doing so would fall outside its stated remit. But if either Cohen or Herold want TV and movies to capture accurately how people respond to unexpected pregnancies, then the story of people who decline abortions—and their reasons for doing so—should be represented too.
In Public Discourse, Lyman Stone argues that child allowances, like the kind recently proposed by Sen. Mitt Romney, decrease abortions:
Cash transfers directly reduce abortions. Three key academic studies have tested this in interesting natural experiments: one using a child allowance program in Spain, one using a baby bonus in the Friuli-Veneto region of Italy, the other using changes in the enforcement of child support in US states. Both studies found the same thing: when mothers get more financial support for childbearing (whether via a direct cash benefits, as in Spain or Italy, or through more reliable and steady child support checks, as in the US example), they are far less likely to pursue abortion. Indeed, reduced abortions accounted for nearly 20 percent of the resulting increase in births after Spain implemented its baby bonus. In Italy, abortions fell by more than births rose: the entire effect on fertility was through reduced abortions.
“It’s difficult to predict exactly how much of an effect Romney’s plan would have,” Stone continues, but “while Romney’s proposal may be incremental, it comes at time when it is much-needed.” (For other defenses of Romney’s plan, see Leah Libresco Sargeant’s piece in the NYT, as well as Ross Douthat’s column on the subject).
Stone’s piece is unlikely to move conservatives in the party’s base who don’t see “pro-life issues” as a political priority, but his work also received a recent critique from a different quarter. Writing in Front Porch Republic, Rebecca Skabelund says that several male pro-natalists pass over in their writing “fertility issues women—and therefore all of us—face in this country.” Among these, she includes the hysterectomy and C-section rates in the U.S., failures to prepare women adequately for giving birth, rising maternal mortality, and other issues. (Why Skabelund choose to call the targets of her critique “fertility kings” when “bro-natalists” was right there is a mystery we can shelve for now.)
Stone took issue with the article—he has written about C-sections, for starters—leading to a correction added as a footnote to the piece. But if we take some of Skabelund’s points less for their critiques and more as first-order material, her piece is a helpful reminder that offsetting the financial cost of having and raising children is only one (important) part of the picture. A full pro-natalist agenda must include “giving money to babies” but it should also reach out to embrace the issues Skabelund mentions, including the more broadly ecological issues she broaches at the end of her piece (and which have received some attention elsewhere). Which seems as good a place as any to mention Leah Libresco Sargeant’s Other Feminisms community and Grace Olmstead’s Granola newsletter.
A Note published in February in the Harvard Law Review argues that “the right to abortion is inapplicable to tribal governments, and, therefore…tribal governments may prohibit abortions performed or obtained by their citizens on their reservations.”
“Whenever I talk about racial justice, it is seen as if it must be in conflict with the pro-life cause. And [I say] it’s very much a part of the pro-life cause. In fact, racial justice and protection of life in the womb are twin sisters” -Gloria Purvis, in “the first of several conversations at the intersection of racial justice and life issues in the Notre Dame Office of Life and Human Dignity's spring 2021 webinar series.”
Around the time of the March for Life, people are Twitter shared some ideas of relevant places to give and I thought I would pass them on here (without further vetting, n.b.): Gabriel Network, Rachel House, Option Line, Abide Women, In Shifra’s Arms
In light of the House’s version of the new COVID relief bill lacking its own dedicated Hyde Amendment protections, the leadership of the Democrats for Life of America make “the progressive case for the Hyde Amendment.”
In January the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling about medical abortion. Before the pandemic, F.D.A regulations required that a pill for medical abortion be picked up in person. A lower court had ruled that this requirement should be suspended in light of the health risks of the pandemic, but SCOTUS’s decision allowed the original F.D.A regulations to come back into effect. For why the back and forth over the regulation of medical abortion matters, see previous Pelican posts about it here. For an updated run down of other abortion cases that could come before the Court in the future, see here.
Two album recommendations this month—
“Long Violent History” by Tyler Childers (2020). I discovered this album via a thread on Twitter containing a number of country/folk/Americana album recommendations, but this was probably my favorite in the list. It is almost all instrumental (“an old time fiddle album,” as Tyler himself puts it elsewhere), except for the concluding song. The album unexpectedly starts off with an instrumental cover of “Send in the Clowns” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and ends with an amazing song occasioned by last summer’s events around racial justice. And all in a nice 32 minutes.
“Forever Only Idaho” by Harrison Lemke (forthcoming this month). Harrison is a really wonderful musician that you may know from Twitter, or from Eve Tushnet’s review of an earlier (excellent) album of his. Three songs are currently available from this forthcoming album: Exonerated, The Old Band, and Burn Down the Title Loan.