While reporting out my recent piece on what a world in which Roe v. Wade – a 1973 Supreme Court decision which found a constitutional right to abortion – is overturned will look like for rural America, I was pleasantly surprised to find Patrick T. Brown. A fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., he told me that he has been “encouraging Republicans to be thinking about this and taking it seriously for a while now.” The “it” is, of course, public policy in a post-Roe world.
I am a strong supporter of abortion rights and oppose any restrictions on them. However, it looks likely that the draft Supreme Court opinion leaked earlier this month will be substantively final – meaning that, as I reported, America will soon “transform into a patchwork quilt of reproductive rights.” Make no mistake, this is Republicans’ mess. They handpicked their justices to do just that. For that reason, I believe the onus should be on them to clean it up.
First, let’s assume that Roe is overturned. Rural Americans, especially, will face barriers to reproductive healthcare as they are forced to travel even farther afield than now – and they’re already traveling long distances. Looking at my home state of Kentucky provides a useful picture of where we stand. In 2017, there were only three abortion providers operating in the Bluegrass State, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute. There are now only two, both in Louisville, meaning 99% of Kentucky counties already lacked abortion providers five years ago.
Depending on where in Kentucky you live, that means you could be driving hours to access abortion services. It is 200 miles from my hometown of Hyden in the southeastern part of the state to Louisville. From Murray, in extreme southwestern Kentucky, it is 228 miles. Little Louisa, on the banks of the Big Sandy River in northeastern Kentucky, is also more than 200 miles from Louisville.
Lawmakers in Frankfort essentially banned abortion earlier this year, but a federal judge temporarily blocked the law last month. Still, with Roe in jeopardy, it looks like the Kentuckians will soon find themselves right where Republicans want them – up the reproductive-justice creek without a Constitutional paddle.
In some ways, this bolsters the beliefs of many – including both Brown and pro-choice “Katie” from the Mountain Access Brigade, whom I also interviewed for my piece – who claim that not a lot is going to change. The truth is that many people are already traveling great distances to get access to abortion care. If abortion is criminalized in some states and not others, that just means they’ll be traveling even farther.
In regions like the Deep South, though – where many contiguous states will likely ban abortion – it will present an even greater burden. Then, of course, there is the question of whether Republicans will actually stop at simply overturning Roe. Earlier this year, Missouri Republicans proposed a law that would criminalize helping someone receive abortion outside the state. Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, is already planning to introduce legislation to federally ban abortion six weeks after conception (a period when most don’t even know they’re pregnant), the Washington Post reports – noting that top anti-choice activist Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List has spoken with 10 possible GOP presidential candidates who all assure her they support banning abortion federally.
This really should not surprise anyone. If you truly believe that abortion is murder – and for the sake of this column, we’ll take anti-choicers at their word – then it doesn’t matter where the abortion happens. In Kentucky or in California, murder is murder. A federal ban on abortion, then, is the logical end goal for the anti-choice movement.
Which brings me back to Patrick T. Brown. “Actually being for parents involves not just taking their cultural interests seriously,” he told me, “but also their material interests as well.” To hear a conservative talk so candidly about providing for the economic interests of mothers with unplanned pregnancies – and indeed mothers and children in general – was refreshing, especially as conservatives now aim to force women to bear children even against their will. That clear-eyed reckoning with the implications of their own policy is rare and something more conservatives must acknowledge.
Indeed, those of us who support abortion rights ought to be demanding answers from those who oppose it. Platitudes will only get us so far. If conservatives are intent on thrusting this radical change up on the nation, they need to at least explain how they plan to mitigate its consequences. Because so far, they have not.
During the Trump administration, Republicans cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for an estimated 688,000 people. In 2018, the Urban Food Policy Institute at CUNY found that Republican proposals would have cut Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits by a whopping 30%. Republicans like Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee have routinely opposed universal childcare – she likened it to a Soviet plot in a tweet last year – and have consistently opposed universal pre-kindergarten, a policy President Joe Biden has championed.
Anti-choice activists and politicians like Blackburn, Ernst, and others need to be pushed to explain what they will do to help the mothers and children of rural America. Last year, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, pushed for a $6,000 to $12,000 child tax credit – a number that outdid even the Democrats’ more modest $3,600 expansion. In Tennessee, a state that has long resisted Medicaid expansion, Republicans this year expanded prenatal and postpartum care for mothers and children. Indeed, a 2018 poll found a majority of Republican voters support Medicare for all.
GOP elected officials should be pushed to adopt similar policies, expanding healthcare, the social safety net, and investing in education and childcare to help the Americans adjust to their new reality. It is Republicans, through justices handpicked to bring about this exact result, who are thrusting the most disruptive social change and restriction of rights in half a century on the country. It is they who are responsible for ensuring the women of America are in a position to withstand that change with minimal persecution and maximum support from the federal government.
Obviously, the left’s first fight must be to protect the right to choose at a federal level. They should support legislation that would codify Roe and fight like hell to make sure abortion access remains legal. But we should also be pragmatic. It looks increasingly unlikely that there are enough votes in the Senate to pass an abortion rights bill without abolishing the filibuster – and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have both made clear they won’t support that, even if it means eradicating reproductive rights.
Therefore, the debate needs to move to a new front. We need public policy that enables both mother and child to flourish and reach their fullest potential. We must adopt social, economic, and industrial policies which help families, especially those who are are now being forced to bear against their will. Only then can the right truly call itself “pro-life.” Because right now, they are at best “anti-choice” and at worst “pro-birth” with no emphasis on the life those babies and mothers will have.
It’s time for the Republican Party to put its money where its mouth is. They must fall in line and support and even enact policies to protect the welfare of every mother they force to bear a child and every child born to every mother in America. Only then will I respect their claim to be “pro-life.” Because right now, it looks like Republicans are anything but.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer who lives in East Tennessee.