Reducing Abortion: What’s Marriage Got To Do With It?

We believe that the most effective means of reducing, and potentially eradicating, abortion comes through lessening the demand rather than the supply. On a socially applicable level, this includes greater access to healthcare, pre and post-natal care, mandatory paid leave, job protection, equal wages, sexual education, and stronger comprehensive support systems.”Poverty has a direct effect on quality of life. We support comprehensive solutions to provide a realistic pathway out of poverty and we opposed any legislation that reduces wages, cuts benefits, or restricts labor rights.- The 11 Pillars of the New Pro-Life Movement
“Reducing demand for abortion is well and good,” I have heard many conservatives say in response to the NPLM, “but why haven’t you mentioned marriage as the best remedy for poverty and abortion demand? Don’t safety net programs replace fathers and entrench the underclass?” It’s an important question worth addressing.

I will begin by pointing out that many abortions are procured by married women. Worldwide, 73% of women obtaining abortions are married [1]. In the U.S. this figure is lower — a little less than 1/3rd of women obtaining abortion report being married [2]. Still, this is a sizable group who are married and still seek abortion. A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that only 42% of women having abortion cited the status of being unmarried as a significant contributor to their decision [2]. While certainly being married reduces the chances of seeking abortion in the U.S., policies that promote marriage are still going to leave a lot of demand for abortion unaddressed.

There is also no denying that a lot of U.S. social support and tax policy disincentivizes getting married. From qualification rules for welfare programs like cash payments, food stamps, and Medicaid, to Earned Income Tax Credit thresholds, to deductibility of childcare expenses and tax brackets for the true middle class, in almost every case the cut-off for a married couple is substantially lower than 2x the cut-off for a single person. Thus most co-parenting, dual-working couples who cohabitate would instantly lose out financially by getting legally married. This is clearly an unjust, anti-marriage situation, and the New Pro-Life Movement heartily supports efforts to eliminate this bias against marriage.

But some conservatives go further. Rather than expanding eligibility for social and tax supports to eliminate bias against married couples, some propose cutting or eliminating these supports all together. Their rationale is that the state is replacing and making irrelevant fathers by providing financial support. The implicit argument is that if these government-funded supports were removed then fathers would step up to the plate with marriage and more financial and practical support for their children and their “baby mommas.”

There is no actual evidence that leaving women and children destitute inspires significant numbers of men to make sacrifices for them that these men would otherwise would not choose. And there are many situations in which marrying the father would not help and may actually make the situation worse, failing to provide financial or practical support, pushing a couple to get married without free consent or knowing each other well (a nullable union in Catholic doctrine), or exposing the mother and/or her children to neglect and/or abuse. The Guttmacher Institute study shows a high prevalence of many of these situations among mothers choosing abortion [2]:

Not sure about relationship — 19%
Would have to find a new place to live —19%
Not enough support from husband or partner — 14%
Husband or partner wants me to have an abortion — 14%
Husband or partner is unemployed — 12%
Partner and I can’t or don’t want to get married — 12%|
Not in a relationship right now — 11%
Relationship or marriage may break up soon — 11%
Currently or temporarily on welfare or public assistance — 8%

While sometimes these categories overlap — women could choose multiple reasons — overall 73% of women having abortions cited the broad category of “can’t afford a baby now” and 48% cited “don’t want to be a single mother or having relationship problems” as a key reason for having an abortion. Yet only 8% cited being on public assistance — which might be jeopardized by marriage — as an important reason. It is evident that very few abortions would be prevented by removing welfare to “incentivize” expectant couples to get married.

Meanwhile, in countries with fewer social supports, poverty drives more married women to get abortions. In developed countries, despite falling rates of marriage, social welfare programs have been driving down abortion to rates below what they are in developing countries where abortion is legally prohibited or highly restricted [1].

Marriage simply is not a substitute for healthcare, paid leave, affordable childcare, and just wages. We need to be supporting both/and, not pitting them against each other, if we wish to support the lives of the unborn and healthy and enduring family life.