Democrats For Life vs. Mitt Romney: Who’s More Pro-Life?

The Democrats for Life are still active, though this may surprise anyone who followed the passage of Obamacare. As Jonathan Last reported at the Weekly Standard, they even held a small conference at the recent Democratic convention. Professor Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America argued daringly for the group’s relevance in the age of Obama, claiming that a pro-life Romney presidency would actually increase the abortion rate by up to 8% due to alleged cuts in Medicaid. Last called this claim “amazing.” Thomas Peters of CatholicVote went further, calling it “odious.” After reading the text of Schneck’s address, I call it wrong, and sloppy.

The claim that Medicaid funding reduces the abortion rate is entirely speculative. Even so, Schneck presents it unfairly. Romney’s record doesn’t actually support Schneck’s argument that he will reduce Medicaid spending “by 40%” (and thus cause a concomitant increase in the abortion rate). Moreover, citations to the study from which it probably came incompletely describe the study’s conclusions. The rest of Schneck’s argument is entirely tendentious, as are its assumptions. In the end, contortions aside, it is still the pro-life party that best represents the interests of pro-life voters on abortion. Social welfare spending isn’t “pro-life” just because a left-wing professor says so.

Abortion and Poverty

Schneck’s main argument is simple and straightforward: “The most powerful abortifacient is poverty.” His supporting evidence is that “the abortion rate is 300% higher below the poverty line.” But this tells us next to nothing. Poverty is a good predictor of whether or not someone will have an abortion, but the fact that the poor have more abortions does not mean that poverty causes abortions, and that therefore poverty can be called an “abortifacient.”

Let’s assume, though, that Schneck’s associational fallacy is valid. Then surely it follows that programs that alleviate poverty will lower the abortion rate by eliminating a cause of abortion, right? This conclusion is also entirely speculative. As (Witherspoon Institute Fellow) Professor Michael New points out, “there is not one peer-reviewed study which shows that Medicaid spending or any other kind of welfare spending actually reduces the incidence of abortion.”

Schneck, however, aims to give some circumstantial evidence for his claim. He notes that in Massachusetts “mandated health care programs” have “reduced the rate of abortions by teens 21%.” This claim is patently slippery. Which “mandated health care programs?” (Perhaps the universal coverage mandate, executed by Governor Mitt Romney, the villain of Schneck’s tale?) Over what time frame did teen pregnancies drop 21%? By what controls do we, again, infer causation? The fact is that the national teen pregnancy rate fell by 40% between 1990 and 2008. Much more information is needed to make the comparatively modest drop in Massachusetts at all probative.

He also cites Germany and the Netherlands as countries with “abortion rates less than 1/3 of America’s in part because they have such programs that include comprehensive health care, special pre-natal, natal, and post-natal programs for all, and generous programs to encourage adoption.” Perhaps. These countries also have something else that America lacks: laws restricting the procurement of abortions.

In the Netherlands, abortion is not lawful after viability. Indeed, before viability it still requires a six-day waiting period, and counseling for informed consent. Germany, by contrast, categorically established that abortion is unlawful (except in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life or serious health of the mother) in its penal code and provides a three-year prison sentence for performing one. Women can obtain first-trimester abortions following a consultation with a social worker and a waiting period (although it’s still technically a crime). Again, Schneck points to a correlation without explaining causation (and ignores one highly relevant lurking variable: abortion restrictions).

Insisting that the programs are the key, however, Schneck points to provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that are pro-natalist (e.g., tax expenditures for adoption, the Pregnancy Assistance Fund, etc.). While such aspects of the act may be admirable, they cannot be considered in isolation, since this law also enabled the infamous contraception-sterilization-abortifacientmandate, and in all likelihood funds abortion. Yet Schneck oddly ignores these well-known and controversial aspects of the act in singing its praises.

Looking at the Medicaid Numbers

While Obamacare includes a wealth of new programs for poor mothers, Romney and Ryan want to cut off what existing support they have, according to Schneck. Not only do they oppose the ACA’s costly Medicaid expansions, they also have their own plan to “devastate” Medicaid beyond repealing the ACA.

Citing a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Schneck claims Romney and Ryan “at a minimum . . . are proposing cutting Medicaid by 29% by 2016 and by 40% by 2022.” This would be bad because Medicaid pays for around one third of all pregnancies. Thus, a 40% cut to Medicaid would (presumably) cut into pregnancy coverage and make abortion the optimal choice for poor women. Schneck concludes that this will cause the abortion rate to “skyrocket.”

Yet Romney’s policies and the CBPP study entail no such thing. As New notes, “There is . . . no evidence that women respond to higher childbearing costs by obtaining abortions in greater numbers.” But even if we assume a relationship between Medicaid spending and abortion, the claim that Romney will “slash” Medicaid by 40%, which will, in turn, profoundly affect pro-natal Medicaid programs, has no basis. The CBPP study purports to look at Romney’s budget. The problem is that there wasn’t, and isn’t, any Romney “budget” to look at. CBPP cobbles Romney’s budget together as best they can from a number of sources–press releases, speeches, other analysis–so as to yield certain baseline budgetary principles from which they extrapolate cuts to non-defense, non-Social Security spending.

Schneck claims that CBPP shows that Romney will cut Medicaid by 40%, but its data do not actually show it. Once CBPP makes its baseline and tax assumptions and controls for no decreases to defense and Social Security, it concludes that Romney will cut all other federal spending by 40%, which includes Medicaid. The study posits as a given that policymakers will “apply the cuts proportionately,” but that is simply an assumption; there is no reason to believe that Romney or a Republican Congress will be inclined to treat all spending programs equally.

As CBPP itself notes elsewhere, Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP combined account for 21% of total federal spending (Medicare makes up two-thirds of that amount). Thus Medicaid makes up around 5% of the expenditures from which the 40% will allegedly be cut. As a result, Romney has considerable room to maneuver before cutting Medicaid by 40%.

So Schneck’s evidence doesn’t show that Romney will cut Medicaid by 40%, only that his stated budgetary priorities could entail a cut of 40% to a basket of expenditures, of which Medicaid makes up around 5%. But even that summary still overstates his case, since not all Medicaid spending goes to pregnancy or perinatal care.

Figuring out what Medicaid expenditures should count toward Schneck’s abortion-rate-increase calculus is admittedly hard. It is difficult to find itemized Medicaid expenses for maternity and perinatal care, partly because the eligibility requirements of these programs vary from state to state.

Nevertheless, at least 40% of Medicaid outlays are for long-term care, Medicare, or tomography, and thus are irrelevant to maternal or perinatal care. The remaining 60% covers (or covered, since the ACA changed eligibility requirements) not only pregnant women at 133% of poverty but a wide variety of recipients including, among others, one in four children. What this means is that maternity and perinatal care are just two of many kinds of Medicaid coverage under that 60% of program spending.

Thus the ceiling of total Medicaid outlays, of which expenditures allegedly designed to prevent abortion are only one part, accounts for just 3% of the total set of government expenditures that will apparently be cut by 40%. To infer from that claim that Romneywill cut these preventive services, and will not, in contrast, spare that maximum of 3% “pro-life” social welfare outlays at the expense of other, less critical programs, cannot be maintained without further evidence, which Schneck conspicuously lacks. And yet Schneck predicts that infant mortality could rise by four percentage points under Romney, with abortion increasing by “6 or 7 or, God forbid, 8” percent.

The Big Picture

The assertion that poverty is the greatest abortifacient is problematic on its face, as is the approach that the sine qua non of the culture of life should be a lower abortion rate.

Let’s stipulate that poverty is the greatest abortifacient. Under President Obama there is more poverty in this country than at any time since 1965. How many abortions can we attribute to his failed economic policies? Perhaps the obvious solution here is–as Schneck claims–to enact more capacious poverty-relief programs. But just as reasonably the solution could be to enact policies that will foster economic growth using intelligent deregulation and tax-predictability or to break cultures of dependency. “The most powerful abortifacient is poverty” might make for a nice bumper sticker, but it doesn’t actually inform pro-life voters beyond giving them license to vote according to their existing economic preconceptions under the mantle of the culture of life.

Regardless, it’s not obvious that lowering the abortion rate can be the only goal of a pro-life voter. The problem of abortion is not just a problem of consequences (abortions) but of justice: there is a class of persons who, by law, are stripped of all legal defense against the use of arbitrary and lethal violence by another. This would be unjust even if not one abortionist availed himself of this legal privilege. To focus on reducing the abortion rate ignores the basic question of justice that abortion presents to the heart of our constitutional order.

To this latter point, the relevant one of Schneck’s addenda is deeply troubling–namely that the “GOP has controlled all branches of government several times since Roe [with] [n]o serious efforts made to make abortions illegal.” While the GOP has controlled all branches of government, it has only done so twice in recent decades (for six months following George W. Bush’s election, and then between 2002 and 2007); it also has not tried to ban all abortions. Leaving aside the political impossibility of such a task at present, Schneck surely knows that the GOP could not even try to ban all abortions under the Roe and Casey regime; it’s a bad-faith argument.

While the Supreme Court is majority Republican-appointee, as Bill Saunders wrote forPublic Discourse, “Clearly, what matters is not the political party that supports the judge. What matters is the judicial philosophy of the judge.” As I recently noted, the GOP is the party of sound judicial philosophy and its judicial conservatism is highly amenable to pro-life interests. The best way to give pro-life legislators and executives greater space for protecting the unborn in law is to support the continued conservative transformation of the Court, not to support the party of constitutional abortion on demand in knee-jerk opposition to speculative spending cuts and their unsupported relation to the abortion rate.

Schneck’s account of why Obama is the better choice from the perspective of a pro-life voter is astoundingly sloppy. Claims are made without any support. The crux of the argument is based on–at best–a naïve and uncritical reading of a dated and limited study from a group whose agenda is clearly left-leaning. Nowhere in the speech does Schneck even mention the planks in the Democratic Party’s eye on health care–like the HHS mandate or even the removal of anti-trafficking funding from Catholic Charities, the threatened removal of Medicaid funds from Texas in retaliation for the state’s defunding of Planned Parenthood, or the potential effects of the Independent Payment Advisory Board on end-of-life care.

In the end, when one looks past the posturing and the rhetoric, one sees that there are clear differences between the parties. One favors publicly funded abortion on demand as a matter of law and has used its time in power to stifle the culture of life. The other favors the protection of the unborn by law, and effects that goal to the extent possible. All that Schneck’s Democrats for Life speech tells us is that one should prefer the former if one thinks liberal social welfare policy is more important than abortion, because he does not provide any sound arguments that the two issues are related. That’s fine; it’s just not clear what work the “for Life” is doing in the group’s name if they’re sponsoring talks like Schneck’s.


Michael Fragoso, JD, writes from northern Virginia.

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