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Anti-Abortion Christians Want a Social Safety Net—but Just for Pregnant Women

Let’s not be deluded into thinking these abortion foes are allies. Everyone deserves robust support so they can choose if they want to parent at all.

infant being bottle fed
John Moore/Getty Images

According to various surveys, the cost of raising a child in the United States during their first year on this planet ranges from a median of $6,000 to $12,000. That’s after the baby is born—one study found that even for those with health insurance, being pregnant and then giving birth by C-section costs, on average, more than $5,000 (a vaginal birth is slightly cheaper). It’s the depressing reality that in the U.S., a baby, much like a college education, can equal a crippling financial burden. As Michelle Moniz, an ob-gyn and the lead author of the study on the cost of giving birth, put it, “This is the kind of money that causes people to go into debt.”

No wonder, then, that the two most commonly cited reasons for people to get an abortion are related to economic (in)security. For many, having a child, or another one (slightly more than half of all people who get an abortion already have at least one child), is simply not an option.

Enter the anti-abortion movement’s latest rebranding. A growing cohort of conservative evangelical women, pleased that their activism has sharply curtailed abortion access in Republican states (and in Texas, almost banned abortion altogether), are now pivoting to promoting how they will care for pregnant women and their babies, providing free diapers and chipping in for bills, or, in the case of one woman, dreaming up a “maternity ranch” for women who contemplated having an abortion but instead continued with their pregnancy. At first glance, this seems merely like a modern update of the older, exploitative model of “maternity homes,” where mostly white, middle-class unwed pregnant women were shipped off to have their babies, shrouded in secrecy and in shame. It also is a fun-house mirror distortion of the mantra of the reproductive justice movement, which has argued, correctly, that the fight for abortion access shouldn’t be just about protecting the ability to end one’s pregnancy but also needs to consider the entirety of the conditions under which we have and raise children. Pregnant people who want to give birth do need support—but let’s not be deluded into thinking these abortion foes are allies.

“Maternity ranch” is the term that Texas resident Aubrey Schlackman uses for the shiplap-heavy compound of “farmhouse-style” cottages spread out over dozens of acres (“I want all of the aesthetic to be unified,” she told The Washington Post) she is looking to build for women and their newborns—a place where women (who I imagine are exhausted by the work of child-rearing) “could plant a garden and learn how to grow their own food, and maybe even learn how to raise cows.” Schlackman and other evangelical Christians are envisioning, as the Post wrote recently in a largely uncritical profile, “a new era in America when the church would establish a kind of Christian social safety net where motherhood was not only supported but also exalted as part of God’s plan for the universe.” (Apparently, this Christian social safety net only exists for a short period after a baby is born; Schlackman’s maternity ranch, if it ever materializes, will only house women until their babies turn 1. One naturally wonders what will happen to these women after being kicked off the compound.) The ranch isn’t real yet, but she and her husband have already begun working with pregnant women. Their assistance comes with some strings: Aside from the very big catch that the women have to commit to remaining pregnant, they must also sign agreements to participate in a 12-week Bible study in order to receive the time-limited financial assistance provided by the Schlackmans’ nonprofit.

Let Them Live, whose youthful founder, Emily Berning, I met in 2020 at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is another anti-abortion group whose stated goal is to “defend the defenseless” by providing financial help to women who, partly through its intervention—the group collaborates with crisis pregnancy centers and clinic protesters—have chosen to cancel their abortion appointments. When we spoke last year, Berning was eager to give her work a shallow feminist gloss. “You know, I am definitely anti-abortion and definitely do not agree with abortion,” she told me. In a sign of her beliefs, she had traveled to Ireland to campaign against the loosening of that country’s abortion ban in 2018. But, she insisted, “the way that I want to make that happen is by empowering women.” (A since-deleted post on Let Them Live’s website paints a decidedly more coercive picture; after hearing from a woman’s boss that her employee had requested a day off for an abortion, the group “started counseling her boss on methods to cancel the abortion.”)

What unifies all of these God-fearing activists, aside from their belief that abortion is murder (Schlackman describes abortion as a “genocide of children,” and Berning has written that people who have abortions are “taking the life of an innocent human being,” an act that “enslaves” women “to the lifetime trauma that abortion brings”) and their desire to force people into having children, is the limits of their care and concern, which still primarily revolve around the fetus and end soon after birth.

By contrast, the foundational tenet of the reproductive justice movement is that people should have the ability to decide if and how they want to become parents. This freedom cannot be separated from a whole host of other concerns—not merely abortion access, but childcare, health care, education, safety, and the financial ability to choose how you want to live your life. This is also the reason that radical feminists in the 1960s and ’70s, in pushing for free abortion on demand, simultaneously argued for the need for free, universal childcare, as well as the redistribution of wealth, and why the National Welfare Rights Organization, which some have described as the “largest Black feminist organization in U.S. history,” called for a guaranteed income.

One can see a diluted echo of these ideas in the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill recently passed by the House and now on its way to the Senate. If passed in its current form, the bill would pour federal funds into making childcare, as well as universal pre-K programs, more affordable and would also extend the expanded child tax credit for another year. For all of the valid questions about how all of this will be implemented, and criticism of how the bill has been weakened, passage of the Build Back Better legislation would represent what childcare expert Elliot Haspel called “arguably the greatest victory for American families in several generations.” One might wonder what Schlackman and the other evangelical women who cloak their anti-abortion views under the guise of supporting women think about these proposals that would materially help millions of families—families that include a whole lot of people who have had abortions.