Some Mothers Just Can’t Win: The Morality of Abortion and the Need for Reproductive Justice

cross-posted to RH Reality Check

Last week, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog ran a post in its Guest Voices series which posed the question of whether abortion is always morally wrong, and whether “religious conservatives really believe God gives them permission to pretend this world is far simpler than it is.”

Martha Woodroof defended the morality of abortion by describing her experience of visiting babies that she describes as “addicted” in a Neonatial Intensive Care Unit. If only religious conservatives could see these “damaged” babies, she argues, they would realize that abortion is not always morally wrong. Ironically, by implying that these babies would be better off not having been born than “birthed by addicts incapable of raising them,” she engages in the same oversimplification she criticizes. She perpetuates shame and stigma, blaming women rather than critically examining inequality, lack of drug treatment or compassion for drug users, or conventional wisdom on drugs, pregnancy, and parenting.

Ms. Woodroof cites her experiences as a host of a Children’s Miracle Network telethon as a basis for her arguments. However well-intentioned it may be, a fundraiser is not the same as evidence-based research, which has not borne out the dire predictions for substance-exposed newborns prophesied by the media in the 1980s and 1990s. While some highly publicized preliminary findings ushered in a media frenzy around so-called “crack babies,” dozens of methodologically sound studies later found no significant difference in brain functioning between drug-exposed newborns and others born exposed to co-occurring factors like tobacco, alcohol, poor prenatal care, or poverty. More recently, articles such as the New York Times“The Epidemic That Wasn’t,” and the Washington Post’s “Once Written Off, 'Crack Babies' Have Grown Into Success Stories” note that those babies have grown into young adults who have exceeded expectations and who are indistinguishable from their non-exposed peers.

Ms. Woodroof correctly observes that religious beliefs should not trump the exigent needs of children. Nor should stereotypes and preconceived notions about who makes an adequate parent trump the needs of children. Children need supportive and loving homes. Many women who provide a loving home for their children have used or been exposed to substances that harm a fetus (such as prescribed medications, alcohol, cigarettes, or environmental toxins) without coming to the attention of the state. Many women who would be able to provide a good home for their children nevertheless have them removed after a drug test which is not an indicator of parenting ability, or even addiction. Even women whose parenting ability is actually impaired by drug addiction can, with appropriate support and treatment, care for their children. One thing is certain: the state makes a poor parent, and the prognosis for children who are able to stay with their mothers through treatment is better than that of those who cycle through the foster care system until they are unceremoniously dumped out at age 18.

The truth is that the bodies of premature babies are used as pawns when they are politically expedient, and completely ignored when they are not. The specter of less-than-perfect children drives criminal prosecutions and destruction of families at the hands of the state, but, paradoxically, not social policy that would address poverty, hunger, lack of healthcare, or the staggering racial disparities in infant mortality.

Abortion is morally defensible because women are in the best position to determine whether or not they are ready to bear a child, not because it is a way for society to prevent the births of babies perceived as undesirable. The difference between eugenics and reproductive justice is recognizing that the problem that needs to be addressed is not bad mothers or damaged babies, but the inequities that lead to unwanted pregnancies and poor outcomes. Abortion should be an option, not a substitute for policies that support women and families. Implying, as Woodroof does, that drug-exposed newborns should never have been born reinforces long-disproven assumptions about these children and ignores ability of all mothers, even imperfect ones, to grow, change, and love their children.