Criminalizing Abortion Is About Keeping People Poor and Ignorant | Opinion

In the wake of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which struck down the constitutional right to abortion services, I can't help but wonder: to what end? Most Americans support abortion access, but the abortion criminalization movement has been politicized, funded, and legislated by elites. While abortion criminalization does not directly align with the economic motivations that typically guide conservative policy, it appears to be part of a demographic strategy to mass produce ignorance and keep low-income families in perpetual poverty.

Most government policies — from Republicans and Democrats alike — foster enrichment of the elite ruling class. Some are more obvious, like regressive tax cuts, corporate bailouts, repealing net neutrality, non-enforcement of anti-trust law, climate-unfriendly energy policy, pork-barrel infrastructure spending, and low interest rates. Even policies designed to serve the average American enrich elites in more subtle ways: payroll tax caps, insurance deregulation, federal student loans, the mortgage industry, and retirement accounts.

Foreign policy, such as free trade deals, enriches elites, too. The government routinely maintains relationships with foreign adversaries to gain access to precious commodities. Nuclear deterrents ensure endless wars that require consumables (artillery, bullets, etc.) produced by the military-industrial complex.

Abort the Court
A woman protests the recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion on June 26, 2022, in San Francisco, California. Arun Nevader/Getty Images

But abortion criminalization does not directly produce financial windfalls for elites. It does align with the Cornucopian, "boomster" economic ideology (generally embraced by conservatives) that generally supports population growth as a means to achieving economic growth. But the additional children born due to abortion criminalization are economic dependents for 17 years and present nominal short-term economic benefits from feeding, sheltering, and housing them.

The right's embrace of white nationalism, at first glance, also seems inconsistent with abortion criminalization. Non-white babies have outnumbered white babies in the United States for several years, and women of color tend to be disproportionately affected by limits to abortion access. Simple math suggests that these trends are counter to conservative goals. Abortion restrictions generally do not reduce the number of abortions, but rather increase the number of unsafe abortions, resulting in worse physical and mental health outcomes that disrupt women's lives.

Unwanted pregnancies significantly restrict women's economic and educational opportunities and limit workforce participation, which can leave women requiring government support. These pregnancies are most likely to be carried to term by low-income mothers, which often lowers economic and educational prospects for both child and mother, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Regardless of whether abortion criminalization actually increases the birth rate, its use as a socioeconomic and educational shackle is consistent with other conservative policy pillars: defunding education, spreading misinformation, and voter suppression.

The Republican Party has long been the party of defunding public education, and even promoted closing the Department of Education. Republicans have stood for repealing academic standards, decoupling accreditation from federal financing, Bible-based curricula, ending federal student loans, censoring classroom content by banning books, and defunding libraries. Adults with at least some college education are more likely to hold liberal political views, and the effect strengthens among highly-educated adults. So, conservatism has embraced anti-intellectualism and ignorance. The right's embrace of disinformation, feeding the so-called infodemic and rapid rise of willful, "militant" ignorance, is also consistent with this strategy.

Abortion criminalization and anti-education policies may affect poor whites and minorities similarly. But for the congressional reapportionment process, which is based on decennial census counts, all births matter. This bodes well for fast-growing red states such as Florida and Texas. But this does not mean all votes matter.

Conservatives control elections by applying the centuries-old tool of gerrymandering to suppress minority voters despite their relatively higher population growth. Conservatives have also pushed voter suppression legislation and other bills aiming to undermine elections. This helps explain why poorer, less-educated, and minority residents are less likely to be politically active or vote. These policies, of course, preserve elite power, thereby enabling perpetual elite self-enrichment — a case study in structural racism.

On this path to Idiocracy, time is on conservatives' side. Demographers have long predicted that growing proportions of minority voters — in places like Florida and Texas — would give Democrats a permanent majority as the U.S. became more urban and less white. But this demographic forecast isn't panning out. Democrats, who took many minority communities' support for granted in the party's shift leftward, are losing minority voters in record numbers.

Abortion criminalization is thus just another strategic part of what has become a perfect storm for liberalism. Attacks on family planning and education feed poverty and ignorance. Email and media disinformation campaigns fan these flames until people can no longer tell truth from fiction, which enables fascist attacks on democracy such as denying election results. Liberals' demographic destiny is being usurped by conservatives' demographic strategy.

Pundits fear that the Dobbs decision is just a first step toward the systematic repeal of additional rights and protections. It may indeed be about more than controlling women, sexuality, or integrating church and state, but part of a grand demographic strategy that aims to cement conservativism in power and enable indefinite Republican elite enrichment. Like climate change, the slide into authoritarianism is a slow-onset event that the public may not recognize until it's here.

So, in case this really is all about power and money: Republican voters and business leaders who value a thriving free-market economy should reconsider centrist candidates who fund public education, reduce ignorance and poverty, restore individual rights, and acknowledge legitimate election results — all hallmarks of a healthy democracy. Look to our extremist-led neighbors around the world; the current path does not end well.

Justin Stoler is associate professor of geography and sustainable development at the University of Miami. He teaches courses on population dynamics and health disparities.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own.