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The scope of the problem is far broader than economics. Research over the years has suggested that an America without abortion would mean more single mothers and more births to teenage mothers, increased strain on Medicaid and other welfare programs, higher crime rates, a less dynamic and flexible work force, an uptick in carbon emissions, lower student test scores and goodness knows what else. If you sincerely believe, as I do, that every abortion means the deliberate killing of an innocent human being, is there some hypothetical threshold for negative growth, carbon dioxide levels or work force participation rates beyond which the protection of that life would be too burdensome?

For me, the answer is no. This is why, even though I find it unlikely that (for example) there is any meaningful causal relationship between access to abortion and academic performance, I believe that those who oppose abortion should not discount the possibility that its proscription will have consequences that some of us would otherwise regret. To insist, as opponents of abortion often have, that the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt cannot be right about the correlation between Roe and the reduced incidence of crime two decades later strikes me as a tacit concession that if they were right, our position on abortion might have to be altered.

For the same reason, opponents of abortion should commit ourselves to the most generous and humane provisions for mothers and children (paid family leave, generous child benefits, direct income subsidies for stay-at-home mothers, single-payer health care) without being Pollyannaish. No matter what we do, in a post-Roe world many children who would not otherwise have been born will live lives of utter misery, and many of our fellow Americans will be indifferent to their plight. If we wish to dispel the noxious argument that only happy lives are worth saving, we will have to be honest about the limits of social policy and private charity in regulating the turbid ebb and flow of human suffering.

In a letter written to a friend in 1959, Flannery O’Connor lamented that some members of the clergy, when arguing in favor of Catholic teaching on procreation, felt the need to assuage concerns about overpopulation. “I wish various fathers would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion,” she wrote. “I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may.”

While the neo-Malthusian fears that animated many observers in the second half of the 20th century appear now to have been ill founded, one should see the wisdom in O’Connor’s blithe acknowledgment that things might have turned out otherwise. What is right is very rarely what is convenient.



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