[Clarke D. Forsythe is senior counsel at Americans United for Life and the author of Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade. This column was posted on July 16, 2023, at National Review Online. © 2023 by National Review. Reprinted by permission.]
When Congress funds abortion, it funds the male partner, the parents, and the trafficker, because abortion clinics never ask and don’t want to know.
In a Knights of Columbus–Marist poll in January, 60 percent of Americans said they opposed taxpayer funding of abortion. For years, polling data have shown a clear and consistent majority of Americans supporting restrictions on taxpayer funding.
When Congress spends federal funds for abortion, it can’t shrug off responsibility and say that it’s a state issue. Congress is responsible for what happens with federal dollars, regardless of what citizens want to do with state dollars. And when Congress spends federal funds, it’s responsible for the impact that funding has on real people, including women coerced into abortion.
In his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemingway conveyed the subtle pressure that men exert on women to have an abortion. Somewhere in Europe, a couple talk while waiting for a train. He wants her to agree to do it and keeps bringing it up. She doesn’t want to talk about it. Her agitation increases. At the conclusion, when she protests that she’s “fine!” she’s obviously not.
Pressure on women to abort plays a role in many abortions. This has been known “for as long as we have recorded history,” as Joseph Dellapenna documents in his book Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History. It likely got worse after Roe v. Wade. An early abortion-rights advocate, Daniel Callahan, recognized that legal abortion gave men “more choice,” because “they now have a potent new weapon in the old business of manipulating and abandoning women.”
The right to abortion isolates women in their decision-making—“her choice, her problem,” as some say—making them vulnerable to coercion from every direction. Many women are coerced into having an abortion by a male partner, parents, or family members. Coercion can take many forms, from intimate-partner violence (IPV) to subtle pressure to paying for the abortion. Coercion by employers after Roe v. Wade became so obvious that a bipartisan coalition in Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1977. At least 20 states have enacted some limited form of coerced-abortion-prevention law since 1973.
Victims of sex-trafficking may suffer multiple coerced abortions. In an article in Annals of Health Law in 2014, Laura Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel reported that 66 sex-trafficking victims had a total of 114 abortions. The victims, the authors wrote, “reported that they often did not freely choose the abortions they had while being trafficked.” A majority indicated “that one or more of their abortions was at least partly forced upon them.”
The reality is there but sometimes not apparent on the surface. In her critically acclaimed book In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (1982), Carol Gilligan devoted a chapter to women’s abortion decisions. But, looking closely at her data, Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard, pointed out that many women in the survey experienced pressure or coercion: “The men in their lives were unwilling to give them moral and material support in continuing with pregnancy and childbirth.”
Yet for a long time the reality of coercion has been told by women themselves, including Linda Bird Francke, in The Ambivalence of Abortion (1977), and Mary Zimmerman, in Passage Through Abortion (1977). In her book Soul Crisis (1989), California psychologist Susan Nathanson-Elkind reported the role of her husband’s pressure in her decision to abort her fourth child: “If you don’t choose to abort this child, I will push you to do it.”
These histories and testimonies have been reinforced by decades of surveys. Studies may report differing rates of coercion, ranging from 30 to 70 percent. But the survey evidence continues to be persistent. A 2004 study in the Medical Science Monitor found that 64 percent of women in the survey felt “pressured by others” to have an abortion. An extensive literature survey by Catherine T. Coyle and colleagues in 2015 found a “consistently observed association between IPV and abortion.” That association resulted in numerous calls by female researchers to “screen women for a history of abuse during abortion counseling.” A study published in BMC Women’s Health in 2020 found that “a majority of women who seek abortion do so because of lack of support from a partner”—in other words, because of abandonment, another form of pressure. A study published by the Charlotte Lozier Institute this year found that “close to 70 percent of the women who had abortions described them as coerced, pressured, or inconsistent with their own values and preferences.”
Many women suffer intimate-partner violence when pregnant. In a 2014 study published in PLoS Medicine, Hall and colleagues wrote that “high rates of physical, sexual, and emotional IPV were found across six continents among women seeking a TOP [termination of pregnancy].” A committee opinion (No. 554) from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, first published in 2013 and reaffirmed in 2022, found that “the prevalence of intimate partner violence is nearly three times greater for women seeking abortion than for women continuing a pregnancy.”
Paying for the woman’s abortion has long been a form of subtle coercion. It eliminates one reason a woman may have for resisting the suggestion or demand. It adds to the pressure women feel, by tilting the economics further in favor of abortion.
When a woman visits an abortion clinic with a man gripping her arm, or a girl is accompanied by her parents threatening to cut off her college funding if she doesn’t abort, or a trafficker makes the appointment for her, could Congress track the coercion? When Congress funds abortion, it funds the male partner, the parents, and the trafficker, because abortion clinics never ask and don’t want to know. That’s not “messaging,” that’s reality.
This understanding is being tested by the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 7), now stalled in the House. With federal debt exceeding $30 trillion, it makes no sense for Congress to fund abortion with taxpayer dollars, especially when there is, sadly, more than enough private funding for abortion. Just ask Alex Soros, Warren Buffett, and Tom Steyer.
Public funding of abortion makes Americans complicit in coercion. Funding restrictions are a necessary safeguard for taxpayers’ conscience rights. They also protect the ethical convictions of medical professionals who conscientiously object to supporting or participating in abortions.
Congress may think that it funds autonomy when it funds abortion. More likely than not, it funds coercion. These are some of the reasons why the 47-year bipartisan consensus supporting the Hyde Amendment has held up in Congress and in public opinion.