The leaked draft opinion in the United States Supreme Court case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health—in which the Court appears poised to reverse the notorious case of Roe v. Wade—presents Catholics with both the opportunity and challenge to reconsider policies and programs in a post-Roe world. While vacating Roe will not substantially affect abortion law in many States (where the struggle to protect unborn life will continue), many States will immediately pass laws that prohibit or heavily regulate abortion access. In those States, we American Catholics must shift our energy and resources from opposing abortion to advocating programs, laws, and regulations that encourage mothers and support young families. To do this, we must first overcome the dangerous libertarian impulse in the hearts of many American Catholics.
This is not to suggest that Catholics have not already been at the vanguard of care of pregnant women, new-born children, and young families. It is a common slander that people who oppose abortion only care about children until they are born. Through crisis pregnancy centres, foster and adoption agencies, and Catholic social services, Catholics have been supporting women, children, and families throughout the U.S. during the entirety of the Roe era. Nonetheless, we Catholics can still do better, on the personal, parish, diocesan, State, and federal levels. Reversal of Roe is an opportunity to consider the creation of new social programs as well as the modification and expansion of others.
Any consideration of policies and programs to support women, infants, and young families must observe the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Most famously articulated by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, this is the principle that social challenges and problems must be addressed on the level most practicably immediate in proximity and size to the problem. “[I]t is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community”, explained Pope Pius. “[I]t is an injustice and . . . grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do”. Where private initiative, voluntary associations, and community programs are sufficient to address social challenges, these are the levels at which they must be addressed.
This does not imply that larger social and political institutions have no role in addressing social problems. Indeed, the role of political institutions is always a factor. Their primary role should be to incentivize and support the subsidiary institutions described above, rather than absorbing their functions. But where social needs cannot be met at these lower, more proximate levels of social action, it is certainly proper to advocate larger social, economic, and regulatory programs to meet them. Pope St. John Paul II summarized this in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus: “[A] community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good”.
This principle can translate into social practices and policies that support pregnant women, children, and families in a number of ways. On the most immediate level, of course, is individual responsibility, to practice responsible (read: chaste) sexuality. Closely related to that, however, is the responsibility of the immediate and extended family to support women who unexpectantly become pregnant but think that they cannot carry the child to term or support him when he is born.
Where family resources are not adequate to the task, the next level of support should be the local parish. Parishes can increase their emphasis on the need for funds to support young pregnant women and mothers, either directly or through local crisis pregnancy centres. Food, clothing, diaper, and over-the-counter medical supplies are the type of in-kind support that can offer both practical and psychological support to young mothers. Many parishes also have the resources to provide temporary housing for young mothers and infants, while assisting them in finding more permanent accommodations and support.
But while the principle of subsidiarity emphasizes these immediate levels of support, it does not preclude addressing these issues, where necessary, through more remote institutions, including at the level of employer-based and government programs. Catholic employers, at least on the diocesan level, should be at the very forefront of pregnancy- and family-friendly programs and benefits. By instituting generous paid family leave, Catholic institutions can be the model for broader paid family leave programs in the United States. It is well documented that the United States is an outlier among western democracies in not mandating any paid parental leave on the federal level. This is in contrast to many European countries that mandate up to 52 weeks or more of leave at a graduated pay scale.
Catholics should advocate similar state and federal policies in the United States. But before we can be taken seriously, we should implement such policies voluntarily, without the need for State or federal laws requiring it. Catholic parishes, dioceses, and Catholic-owned businesses can offer more generous family leave on their own, thus observing the principle of subsidiarity and encouraging young families to welcome children. The role of government in these cases might be to offer matching funds for expanded leave, or increasing child tax credits or other tax incentives to businesses that support pregnant women and young families. These should support mothers (or fathers) who choose to stay at home for extended periods, rather than feel compelled to send their children to child-care facilities.
Will such programs be expensive? Of course they will. But we must be ready to absorb the social costs of policies that encourage, protect, and support young mothers, whether their pregnancies were planned or otherwise. As it becomes clear that Roe will officially be vacated, it will be time for us Catholics to put (more of) our money where are mouths are.
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