To counter abortion ruling, shift from recriminations toward development

Supreme Court
FILE – Anti-abortion demonstrators and abortion right activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Washington, on June 25, 2022. St. Luke’s Health Kansas City, operator of 16 hospitals, briefly stopped providing emergency contraception over concerns that the state’s abortion ban could put doctors at risk of criminal charges if they provide the medication known as the morning-after pill, even for sexual assault victims, only to restart the procedures on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling enabling states to restrict abortion has pleased conservatives and alarmed social liberals. Differences in values have always existed, with all sides firmly convinced of their own moral superiority. This is not an issue of men versus women. In every state that restricts abortion, women outvote men. Regional cultural differences will not disappear any time soon. Elevating these differences to the center of public life accentuates them. 

Culture wars have been incredibly destructive and detract attention from pressing issues. The United States is deeply troubled. Life expectancy here, once higher than that in many Western European countries, is now on par with developing countries such as Colombia and Ecuador. Heated conflicts over cultural issues have led many social conservatives – including many Christians who traditionally sympathize with the poor and favor environmental protection – to form political coalitions with economic conservatives, who favor lower taxes, less public investment and minimal regulation to protect the environment, consumers and workers.

The regions of the United States that levy the highest taxes and invest the most in infrastructure, education, public health, food safety and environmental protection have tended to develop the most productive and healthiest populations. Public investment causes economic growth and improvement in population health. 

State laws restricting abortion do not hamper the ability of well-educated and prosperous people to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion. The best way to counter bad local laws is to give people the means to escape them.

But people in less developed regions are hindered by limited transit options, financial resources and educational opportunities. Many of these problems can be ameliorated with prudent public investments.

We can help people living in those regions, without demanding that they or their neighbors surrender their sense of identity or moral values, by focusing the government primarily on economic development and individual mobility rather than cultural indoctrination. The time, energy and money that have been spent arguing about whether Missouri’s abortion laws should be adopted by Illinois or vice-versa could better be spent improving the speed and frequency of trains connecting St. Louis to Chicago.

While access to abortion can improve women’s health and economic opportunities, political compromises that entail slightly less convenient access in return for increased public funding for education, transit and health care may help women (and men) more.  Indeed, women in many European countries where Christian political parties formed coalitions with Social Democratic ones, such as Ireland and Italy, simultaneously receive more generous economic protections while facing more legal restrictions on abortion compared to their U.S. counterparts. Italian and Irish women now live years longer than their U.S. counterparts.

Culture wars over race can also be counterproductive. In France, Germany and much of Western and Northern Europe, governments are not permitted even to collect data on race, much less use it to allocate government contracts, jobs or university admissions.  This is because Europeans regard legalized racial classification and discrimination, even in the form of affirmative action to help minorities, as reminiscent of what took place in Nazi Germany. Yet racial minorities in Western Europe are less likely to be imprisoned or executed. Even the most liberal U.S. states have incarceration rates that look medieval by Western European standards

After World War II, a development-oriented approach helped transform jingoistic German and Japanese societies into economic powerhouses and bastions of liberalism. To accomplish this long-term transformation, the Allies had to make tactical concessions to local moral values, even treating many war criminals with leniency.

Conflicts over cultural and social issues have ravaged the United States more than military conflict. After centuries of religious, ethnic and ideological strife, European priorities have changed. They are now more interested in maintaining a functional public sector that is concerned with the wellbeing of its people than with fighting Kulturkampfs. 

When will Americans mature enough to follow this proven recipe for success? When will we learn to respect those whose moral values are different from our own, to work together on areas of agreement and to rebuild? 

Michael Simkovic is the Leon Benwell Professor of Law and Accounting at the USC Gould School of Law.

Tags abortion Culture Wars Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court

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