The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that the U.S. birth rate has hit a 30-year low.
That same day, news broke that the Trump administration planned to announce the revival of a Reagan-era “gag rule” that prevents medical facilities that receive funding under Title X ― a federal family-planning grant program ― from even mentioning abortion as an option. The proposed rule change was officially announced Tuesday.
I can’t help but think these two announcements are somehow related.
Multiple outlets have published pieces calling on Democrats to let abortion rights lie since the 2016 election. And we’ve also been told time and time again to leave behind “identity politics” ― political positions and alliances that focus on issues of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality ― and instead focus on economic issues, as though identity politics and economic issues are two separate things.
But they aren’t. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested so himself during his December 2017 lamentation that America needs more babies if we want to see an improved economy. He said he “did [his] part” ― Ryan and his wife have three children ― but with baby boomers retiring faster than they can be replaced in the workforce, he suggested women have more babies, and fast! Our national economic health depends on it! Never mind that these new babies can hardly clock in anytime soon.
“Becoming a parent is an intensely economic decision. We deserve all the facts before we make that decision. And abortion is just one of the many ways individuals limit the number of children they have.”
Politicians’ increased focus on the connection between continued economic success and our national fertility has not, however, led them to acknowledge the very real economic reasons that people decide to limit or avoid parenthood.
Giving birth is expensive. Adding a child to your health insurance plan is expensive. Our parental leave policies are abysmal ― we have no guarantee of paid maternity leave, and most families cannot afford to lose six weeks or more of pay. And child care is prohibitively costly ― families can pay anywhere from $9,000 to nearly $30,000 a year (costs vary widely from state to state). On average, it costs upward of $200,000 to raise one child to adulthood, and that doesn’t even take into consideration college tuition, which isn’t getting any cheaper.
And then there are the invisible costs. Once a woman becomes a mother, her marketability as a professional takes a hit, and “traditional notions about fathers as breadwinners and mothers as caretakers” pervade our everyday culture. For a lot of other reasons I won’t list here, once you become a mother, your earning power decreases.
And what if your family needs assistance down the road? Benefits are minimal for both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program. Yet beneficiaries of those programs, along with the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, get a heaping side of shame and racially charged references to “welfare queens” living on the largesse of the state through their fertility. The hypocritical undercurrent is there: If you couldn’t afford those kids, why would you have them?
Becoming a parent is an intensely economic decision. We deserve all the facts before we make that decision. And abortion is just one of the many ways individuals limit the number of children they have. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 59 percent of patients who choose abortion have already had at least one child, and many decide they simply cannot handle another ― emotionally, physically or economically.
This brings us back to the gag rule. Title X funding helps an estimated 4 million people in the U.S. each year by giving agencies and organizations grants to provide family planning resources, including pregnancy prevention and reproductive health care. The majority of Title X beneficiaries are low-income people: Sixty-six percent, or about 2.7 million people, “had family incomes at or below poverty” in 2015.
The Trump administration’s revival of the gag rule will make it so much harder for a person to make an informed choice about whether to have a child, potentially tying them to a financial responsibility they may not be ready to bear.
“The Trump administration doesn’t want legitimate medical facilities to talk about abortion rights, but it willingly gives money to illegitimate institutions that prey on the economically vulnerable.”
Protocols already in place prevent organizations like Planned Parenthood from using federal funding to pay for abortion care, but this proposed gag rule will further disallow facilities that provide family planning and reproductive health care from providing abortion care under the same roof.
Crisis pregnancy centers, on the other hand, continue to have access to Title X funding. CPCs are steadfastly anti-abortion, generally anti-contraception and wield tremendous influence: They outnumber abortion clinics nearly 4 to 1 and have zero regulations with regard to the information they dispense. Because CPCs are often affiliated with religious groups, their services tend to be free or low-cost and often promise not only medical help but also an array of products, from clothes to diapers to formula.
The Trump administration doesn’t want legitimate medical facilities to so much as mention abortion rights, but it willingly gives money to illegitimate institutions that prey on the economically vulnerable.
If the Trump administration and GOP politicians are still concerned about America’s low birth rate and the future of our economy, plenty of other solutions exist that don’t restrict abortion care access. They could raise the minimum wage so people can better afford to have children if they choose to do so. They could provide paid family leave so parents can afford to take time off work to bond with their newborn children. They could increase (rather than decrease) CHIP funding so children from low-income families have health care coverage. They could institute universal health care for everyone.
Instead, they lay claim to “pro-life” policies while simultaneously making it difficult for parents to have ― and financially support ― children.
People have always attempted to control their fertility and have always accessed abortion care, even when abortions are illegal and the methods unreliable. No gag rule will ever change that.
The only thing this rule will do is prevent people ― disproportionately, low-income patients ― from accessing reliable information and safe, affordable abortion care, and instead sign them up for future economic instability.
Julia Hudson-Richards is a food activist and historian who studies the environment, food and the people who produce it. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.