Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.
For about twenty years, I’ve volunteered at a pro-life pregnancy center. (The views expressed here are mine alone.) I don’t know how much my experience can contribute to the broader national politics of abortion. Everything I’m about to say is drawn from what my clients have told me, and while I do everything in my power to build trust, I am not in their shoes and can speak only as an observer.
Moreover, my pregnancy center is in the District of Columbia; abortion will likely remain legal here or across the border in Maryland. The women we see are not the ones most directly affected by the court’s decision. I can’t speak to the experiences of women in states where Republican lawmakers compete to “own the libs” by pushing increasingly punitive laws (against the wishes of the biggest pro-life groups in the country, which have all declared that they do not want women punished for seeking abortions). The Dobbs decision will not—at least not immediately—lead D.C. doctors to delay or withhold treatments intended to save pregnant women’s lives out of fear of criminal investigation.
At least for a while, our clients will continue to make decisions about their pregnancies under more or less the same conditions that they have in the past. They will face the same health-care disparities that poorer women and women of color face across the country: D.C.’s maternal mortality rate is well above the national average—and a recent review by the District’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee found that 90 percent of all people who died of pregnancy-related causes in D.C. during the years under review were Black. These numbers increase some of our clients’ fears of pregnancy complications, and their fears about having children at all.
I can know only what my clients choose to share with me: how they choose to present themselves to someone who is nearly a stranger, maybe just a voice on the phone. But I think I have discerned patterns in the reasons clients mention for considering abortion or choosing life.
Many of my clients want an abortion because they believe it is the most responsible choice. This is not vocabulary I’ve encountered often in pro-life rhetoric about women’s reasons for abortion. It’s not hard to find people who think they’re defending the unborn by depicting women who seek abortions as irresponsible, wanting sex without consequences, wanting to lead carefree single lives. And it’s not hard to find pro-life people depicting women who seek abortions as trapped victims. The second image is a bit closer to what I’ve seen than the first, but most of the women who tell us that they intend to have an abortion if they’re pregnant understand themselves to be making a moral choice. This kind of client often understands that other women have had the baby under similar circumstances, and she doesn’t waste time judging them, but she thinks it would be irresponsible for her, right now, to have a baby.
The reasons they think abortion would be the responsible choice are varied. Sometimes they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they’re married. (Most of our clients’ sexual decisions are made with the intention of eventually marrying. But not “waiting until marriage”—that, too, is irresponsible, because you risk marrying the wrong person or never marrying at all.) Sometimes they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they have their lives in order on an emotional level. Most often they think it would be irresponsible to have a baby before they’re financially stable. For clients who already have children, there’s an extra urgency, since each additional child pushes that stable future a little farther away.