Want to Lose on Abortion? Talk About It as an Economic Issue

Advocating for access to abortion through an economic frame is ineffective and does nothing to advance the host of economic justice issues Democrats must also tackle.

Whether Democrats seek to move supporters to prioritize the issue or persuade skeptics on their policy solutions, framing abortion as an economic issue is a double failure. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a critical debate on how progressives and Democrats talk about protecting abortion care, and we welcome others who want to engage it. You can email pitches to [email protected].

Since the election, various Democratic leaders have been coming forward to invite abortion opponents to the party. In response, reproductive rights advocates have been beating the “abortion is an economic issue” drum, in an effort to make support for abortion non-negotiable by appealing to the purported main pillar of the Democratic brand: economic justice. But just because something is true doesn’t make it persuasive.

If progressives want to rally their base and keep Republicans and complicit Democrats from furthering their full-throttled assault on reproductive rights, they should know better than to promote the dead-end narrative of “abortion as economic issue.”

Let’s dispense with the obvious: Abortion costs money. Indeed, thanks to many state lawmakers, it is often expensive, costs work time, and requires travel. Pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing cost money too.

None of this is accidental. The fact that women often can’t access abortion and the financial obligations that accompany parenting are deliberate policy choices made by generally wealthy white men to curtail the well-being of women, especially poor women of color. Economic well-being for women depends upon our ability to control whether and when we have children.

Yet billions of people all over the world continue to have children. Why? Because sex, reproduction, and child-rearing engage a whole host of our emotions. People do not principally think about abortion; we feel about it. 

Whether Democrats seek to move supporters to prioritize the issue or persuade skeptics on their policy solutions, framing abortion as an economic issue is a double failure. First, it suggests that things that have to do with money are the most important things—a worldview that undercuts fundamental recognition of self-determination. And second, the attempt to remove emotion from the message leaves listeners feeling empty. It makes supporters of reproductive freedom sound out of touch with the majority of humans who have strong feelings and moral convictions about abortion, children, and parenting.

We’ve seen many times over how monetizing things core to human existence loses key debates. Take marriage equality, where early arguments about married filing jointly tax savings fell flat, while love and family won the narrative battle. The death penalty costs taxpayers much more than life in prison, but these practical arguments have proven similarly ineffective. When advocates talk about the enormous cost of deporting millions of people without documentation and the attendant economic losses, it suggests that if there were some free way to do it, it would be just fine.

Injustice isn’t bad because it’s expensive—it’s bad because it’s unjust. But as is often the case with polarizing issues, progressives default to avoiding naming what they believe and what kind of society they seek to create. Abortion opponents, then, seize on it as proof positive of some latent discomfort that advocates use euphemism and deflection to obscure.

We think hiding these issues, or focusing on financial concerns, will make them sound more mainstream and thus compelling. But this is a classic please all, please none strategy. It’s time for progressives to stand for something—not try to convince us to shop around to get whatever policy is on clearance.

We’ve already seen the failure of attempting to evade the moral questions at the heart of abortion with economic terms; it’s inherent in the very label “pro-choice.” “Choice” co-occurs with words and phrases that suggest low-stakes selections, generally in the consumptive realm. To repurpose a marketing gem—“choosy moms choose Jif,” not abortion. This cannot stand as a counterweight to powerfully emotional messages used by the opposition: “sanctity of life,” and, more recently, “women deserve better.”

“Choice” and the libertarian “government out” narrative from which it emerges actually undermines abortion advocates’ true aims: government involvement in the form of financial support for parenting, comprehensive sex education in public schools, and affordable health-care services without exclusions.

The failing of “choice” rhetoric is no secret. Planned Parenthood has in recent years publicly eschewed this phrase. In order to fight back against what appears to be a new wave of desperately disappearing Democratic backbones, advocates reflexively return to monetizing the issue. Ironically, some of those criticizing former speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and DNC Chair Tom Perez for rank ordering what counts as progressive priorities are, in fact, trying to move their issue up the hierarchy by casting it in economic terms.

If Democrats want to win the abortion debate, they must engage on an emotional level, not a practical one. They should remind listeners we cannot ever fully understand and thus judge another’s actions. In fact, because of the pervasive stereotypes about women and about sexuality, just speaking in the singular—a woman—as opposed to “women,” has a measurable effect on opinions about abortion.

Messages that acknowledge the complexities inherent to abortion, that model what it means to suspend judgment of people acting in ways we do not endorse, have yielded the best results in public opinion research. For example, Abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision, and I don’t believe you can make that decision for someone else. Or, People have strong, conflicting opinions about parenting, but that doesn’t mean we can force anyone to become a parent when and if they are not ready. Or, We can’t know a woman’s specific situation. Ultimately, decisions about whether to end a pregnancy, place for adoption, or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family, and her faith, with the counsel of her health-care provider.

To be sure, we need to talk loudly and forcefully about economic issues such as why, for example, people who work for a living ought to earn a living. But advocating for access to abortion through an economic frame is ineffective and does nothing to advance the host of economic justice issues Democrats must also tackle.