The Connection Between Roe v. Wade and “Feminist Pork”


In the written opinion of Roe v. Wade, the Justices did not discuss the economic reality of having children. In his concurrence, Justice Stewart did however cite National Mutual Ins. Co. v. Tidewater Transfer Co., to explain why, even though “abortion” isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, the Court must still grapple with its Constitutional implications:  “Great concepts like . . . `liberty’ . . . were purposely left to gather meaning from experience,” Blackmun wrote, “For they relate to the whole domain of social and economic fact, and the statesmen who founded this Nation knew too well that only a stagnant society remains unchanged.”

The whole domain of social and economic fact includes the economic reality of having children. As we celebrate Roe v. Wade this month, against the backdrop of one of the most challenging economic times in U.S. history, the connection between reproductive freedom and women’s economic status could not be more clear. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of women who have abortions already have a child. Sixty-nine percent are economically disadvantaged and 42 percent are poor. Poor women are five times more likely than higher income women to have an abortion.

Roe v. Wade and the movement that helped bring the case to the Supreme Court is fundamentally about economics: the concept of reproductive freedom is ensnared with a woman’s socioeconomic status. The Constitutional tenets of privacy and substantive rights are a means to the end: women’s autonomy and women’s and families’ economic security. And the reality for many Americans is that having more than one child or a child at all is an economic burden that is sometimes too much to bear.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opponents of abortion are also against economic policies that can help struggling families. Case in point: paid family leave. Paid family leave, which enables some workers to take time off to care for children, as well as elder parents or other family members while still being paid either by their employer or the state, has been an unpopular program among right-wing groups, many of the same groups who oppose abortion. In 2011, President Obama’s budget included $50 million to help states set up family leave programs similar to California’s—a program that enables new parents to take time off work and spend valuable months with young children or infants without substantial loss of income.

This provision drew the ire of right wing groups. The Eagle Forum called the budget “feminist pork” spending that promotes an “anti-male, anti-marriage ideology.” The Eagle Forum is also against the legal right to abortion.

Paid family leave is likely to emerge in Obama’s second term: the National Partnership for Women and Families is currently working with Representative Rosa DeLauro and other representatives on a major family leave bill that could extend the leave that people in California, Washington, and New Jersey currently receive to all Americans.

The National Partnership points to new survey data showing increased interest among members of Congress to addressing women’s issues, particularly after women’s vote was instrumental in the 2012 election.

“We’re under no illusion this will pass next year,” Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs at the National Partnership told RH Reality Check. “But we’re building momentum in Congress and assembling a broad coalition around the country, similar to the one that was behind Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993.” (The FMLA grants all workers in businesses with fifty employees or more up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But twelve weeks without a paycheck is something that many working people simply can’t afford.)

“With the FMLA’s 20th anniversary coming up, new survey data showing the popularity of paid leave and members of Congress keyed in to addressing the concerns of women and other constituencies that were so instrumental in the election, I anticipate increased momentum and plenty of support from [members of Congress],” Shabo said.

The criticism of paid family leave as “feminist pork” spending is likely to rear its head again as well, even though this type of pork spending can help support families who are considering terminating a pregnancy due to their economic situation. The California paid family leave program, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in fall 2012, has demonstrated the influence paid leave policies can have for American families—particularly those in lower-income brackets. A report issued by the University of California at Santa Barbara, available here, evaluates paid leave’s effects on families’ economic security:

“Leave under the paid family leave (PFL) program had the biggest impact among workers that researchers categorized as employed in “low-quality” jobs or jobs that did not pay at least $20/hour with health insurance. Among these workers, 91% of them who used the PFL program for their leave reported that their leave improved their ability to care for a new child, compared with 71% of workers who did not use the PFL program. Seventy-two percent of workers in “low quality” jobs who used the PFL program reported that it improved their ability to arrange child care compared to 49% of workers who did not use the program.”

The California study found that paid family leave improves families’ economic security overall, enabling women to increase their working hours after returning from leave, “with a concomitant increase in earnings.”

Only two states besides California have paid family leave programs: Washington enacted its program in 2007 and New Jersey in 2008. Bills have been introduced in a number of states including Rhode Island, New York and Arizona.

According to Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families roughly 11 percent of employees have access to paid family leave programs provided by their employers. As is true for most benefits, employers are under no obligation to offer paid leave.

Most women do not have access to paid family leave. At the same time, the states are further restricting abortion access. Together these policies create a catch-22 for low income women. In addition to addressing access to abortion, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is an opportunity to support common sense policies like paid family leave that can help poor women and their families stay afloat.

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