With all the arguing about whether you can be for women and for abortion, it’d be good to talk about what abortion means to the women who face it most often.
Anyone paying attention knows the overarching themes of both sides: on the one side are those who equate abortion with women’s freedom and equality. On the other, women like myself who denounce the killing of human beings and an industry regularly indifferent to women’s suffering and their right to fully informed consent.
Yet an honest assessment of the situation of women most likely to have an abortion today easily reveals that there’s more to it. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 86 percent of abortions are performed on single women. Three-fourths of all abortions are performed on women living at or below the poverty line. While poor women have a disproportionate share of abortions, however, they are less likely to abort any given pregnancy than their wealthier sisters.
Rates of nonmarital births are over 40 percent, led by disadvantaged women in their 20s and older. Women head the vast majority of single-parent families and suffer the poverty associated with it. Birth control has never been more available, with billions of taxpayer funds spent on it annually, and yet, it’s not the panacea many say it is in the nonmarital pregnancy or abortion conversations.
To understand what nonmarital pregnancy and abortion mean to women who face both, we have to understand what romance, sex, and motherhood mean to them.
The leading book about the lives of single moms—Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage—sociologists Kathryn Edin (John Hopkins University) and Maria Kefalas (St. Joseph’s University) bring to life the voices of these women. For the purposes of their study, Edin and Kefalas moved into the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, and over the course of five years, befriended individuals they sought to understand.
When Birth Control Fails
They found that “the large majority [of unwedded births among the poor] are neither fully planned nor actively avoided. Most often, the young women are well versed in the use of birth control prior to conception.” (emphasis in original)
Access to birth control is not a concern, Edin and Kefalas note, “Planned Parenthood, area hospitals, and Philadelphia’s network of free clinics offer family planning services, and these institutions are so well known in these neighborhoods that few have to look in the phone book to find the address.” Furthermore, poor women complained to Edin and Kefalas about the side effects caused by the Pill, patch, or other methods.
Additionally, once the relationship with their child’s father moves to a perceived higher level of intimacy and trust, they abandon contraception or use it less consistently. “As a new romance deepens, young women who are ‘not exactly planning’ to have children may nonetheless begin to look for signs of their partner’s willingness to ‘do the right thing’ if they were to ‘wind up pregnant,’” Edin and Kefalas report. The significance of a man saying he wants to have a baby with a woman is huge:
In the social world of [these] young people, nearly everyone knows that a young man who proclaims his desire to have a baby by a young woman is offering high tribute to her beauty, for this avowal expresses a desire for a child that will have her eyes and her smile. (emphasis in original)
The Father’s Role
Oftentimes, this desire for deeper “trust” is expressed early in the relationship—sometimes as early as the first days of a new relationship. The fathers then wield tremendous influence in the future of the pregnancy. “For their part, women believe that the response to a pregnancy is the measure of a man, and hope the crisis will force their partners to move toward maturity,” Edin and Kefalas explain. But a pregnancy premature to a lasting commitment rarely forges the intimacy women desire.
“Many men do not cope with the stress of a pregnancy well,” Edin and Kefalas write, “What seemed like an enchanting possibility in private moments of courtship can become a terrifying responsibility in the harsh light of day.” It is often the pressure of the father that introduces abortion.
“Get an abortion…If you don’t get an abortion, we aren’t going to be together,” one father said to his pregnant girlfriend. “Take it out, take it out,” another man said, even providing $600 for the abortion. But among the women that Edin and Kefalas spoke with, rarely do a young woman and her community find abortion justifiable.
“Mothers who choose abortion when they have the means to avoid it are viewed as immature at best and immoral at worst, unable or unwilling to face up to the consequences of their own actions,” with few situations in these communities being considered “dire enough” to qualify for an abortion, as they explain.
For these women, “[c]hoosing to end a pregnancy is thus like abandoning hope.”
The Meaning of Motherhood
In contrast, motherhood—no matter how early it comes in life or how much hardship it brings—becomes “virtually the only source of identity and meaning in a young woman’s life.”
Even as women and their communities understand that to have a baby before marrying and finishing school “is not the best way to do things,” Edin and Kefalas emphasize that, “the choice to have a child despite the obstacles that lie ahead is a compelling demonstration of a young women's (sic) maturity and high moral stature,” because it is “a unique chance to demonstrate these virtues to her family and friends and the community at large.” For these women, “[c]hoosing to end a pregnancy is thus like abandoning hope.”
A child offers something young women in these communities need and lack “love and intimacy.” As one mother explained, “I think [I got pregnant] mainly because I wanted to be loved. I went through childhood without it.”
Further, for many young women, becoming a mother was the impetus to make better choices for their life and future.
“That’s why I stopped dancing. I stopped doing a whole lot of stuff,” one mother explained, “I got a child, and I can’t raise him around that stuff.”
“I wasn’t going to [return to school] for me, it was for the sake of my child...” another mother explained (emphasis in original).
In fact, they repeatedly heard mothers say things like “my child saved me,” or “it’s only because of my children that I’m where I am today.” According to Edin and Kefalas, “[women in these communities] believed their children were what finally set them on the right track.”
Pro-life pregnancy centers and pro-life religious charities are already helping poor women—married and single—choose life for their kids and themselves, and to not force women to abandon hope. But we must go further.
Data from scholars on both sides of the political sphere assert that children born in single-parent homes are more like to suffer physically, emotionally, educationally, and economically than their peers born to their married mom and dad.
“The poor avoid marriage,” Edin and Kefalas say, “not because they think too little of it, but because they revere it.” To them, divorce strips marriage of its meaning. As one woman told them, “I’m not going to make any promises I can’t keep.”
Like their more advantaged sisters, poorer women want and deserve stable, romantic, and nonviolent partnerships, married parenthood, and a decent chance for their kids to escape single parenting, low education, and the cycle of poverty. In the end, freedom and equality are the right words to describe what women want, but it’s a different sort of freedom than either abortion or nonmarital pregnancy promises. As we face an administration promising to support significant pro-life legislative gains, and promising to support forgotten Americans, both sides need to think long and hard about what they can do privately, alongside the government, to realize less advantaged women’s overarching hopes for marriage and children as a package deal.
Meg T. McDonnell is executive director of the Chiaroscuro Institute. This article was first published at Crux and has been reprinted here with permission.