Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Capitalism, Ideology and the Abortion Debate (after 40 years)

By Ryan McIlhenny


January 25, 2013

By Ryan McIlhenny

My wife Becky and I have been involved in the anti-abortion movement for many years now.  During this time, we’ve looked at abortion from a variety of angles.  While there are a handful of reasons for choosing abortion, many of the clients we interacted with came from low-income neighborhoods.  Several were single mothers; many held down more than one job.  Keeping a good-paying job becomes increasingly difficult when a child enters—perhaps, for some, “threatens”—the mix.  Becky and I contemplated the socioeconomic conditions that make it difficult for women not to have an abortion.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and today, thousands of pro-life advocates are marching on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  Proponents and opponents of legalized abortion have largely failed to address one particular force that ignores both the life of the unborn and the rights of women.  Regardless of its variations over the last couple centuries, capitalism tends to atomize society and destabilize communities.  In the west, the rapid shift from a pre-modern artisanal economy, in which output tended to be slow and costly since it depended on the skill of a master craftsman and his community, to a commercial based industrial one in the early nineteenth century fractured families.  The place of labor (the factory) and its process (the division of labor) dispersed family members daily, creating the sacred “individualism” (a term that came into fashion in the 19th century) that has sunk deep into the western—now global—psyche.  Nineteenth-century Saint-Simonian Louis Blanc offered a helpful illustration of how competitive capitalism is uninterested in maintaining the family: 

What does competition mean to workingmen? It is the distribution of work to the highest bidder. A contractor needs a laborer: three apply. “How much do you ask for your work?” “Three francs, I have a wife and children.” “Good, and you?” “Two and a half francs, I have no children, but a wife.” “So much the better, and you?” “Two francs will do for me; I am single.” “You shall have the work.” With this the affair is settled, the bargain is closed. What will become now of the other two proletarians? They will starve, it is to be hoped. But what if they become thieves? Never mind, why have we our police? Or murderers? Well, for them we have the gallows. And the fortunate one of the three; even his victory is only temporary. Let a fourth laborer appear, strong enough to fast one out of every two days; the desire to cut down the wages will be exerted to its fullest extent. A new pariah, perhaps a new recruit for the gallows.

The social fragmentation endemic to capitalism remains today.  The eliminated worker in Blanc’s day became an item for the gallows. And today we have legal recourse to destroy the human obstacles in the way of our individual economic “success”/“liberation.”   

In their attempts to protect women’s rights and the rights of the unborn, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates need to rethink their ideological commitments.  It seems odd to me, contrary to what is advanced by pro-choicers, that choosing an abortion has become the test for a woman’s liberation.  (Why a woman who battles abortion or chooses not to have an abortion is no longer in charge of her body baffles me.)  In this way, pro-choice liberals in America propagate an ideology severed from reality.  Proponents of “choice”, I suggest, ultimately submit to the dictates of the market against the rights of women.  Government welfare programs, while directed toward meeting the needs of the poor, are ultimately weak in that they fail to address aggressively a central problem of capitalism—namely, the continual creation of systems of poverty. 

Conservative evangelicals committed to life have commendably continued the fight against on-demand fetal terminations.  They have also done well in caring for the physical and emotional needs of women who have had or are contemplating abortion.  Yet they too need to consider how a “free” capitalist ideology strengthens abortion.  Conservatives are vocal supporters of traditional family values, yet they are, for the most part, the loudest defenders of an economic system uninterested in protecting the family unit.  Our 9-to-5 daily routines demonstrate this.  Middle and—especially—working-class family members spend a majority of their lives away from each other.  As Blanc shows us, capitalism favors individuals over families.  Of course, this is not to negate the great efforts of conservatives to end abortion.  The strategy of dealing with abortion directly needs to continue.  But what would happen if those committed to battling abortion considered a person’s context?  Could we work to alleviate some of the drastic socioeconomic conditions that heavily pressure women to choose an abortion?     

There is an overwhelming feeling of uneasiness when highlighting the harmful social consequences of capitalism, but a critique of a system is not necessarily a complete rejection of it.  If capitalism is beyond criticism, then it has become an idol.  The personal observations offered above in no way intimate an economic determinism that would negate human agency.  Instead it proposes that economic conditions have subtle yet no less powerful ways of forcing us to choose particular paths.  Is it possible to reform conditions to redirect citizens in making good moral decisions?          

—Ryan McIlhenny is Associate Professor of History at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”