tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Bankruptcy reform debate could guide our country's approach to abortion policy

The 109th Congress will likely consider reforms to the country’s bankruptcy laws, an on-going legislative effort that has been held up by a curious amendment advocated by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer doesn’t want people convicted of damaging abortion clinics to escape monetary penalties by filing for bankruptcy. An amendment codifying this stipulation has derailed bankruptcy reform in the last two Congresses, even though bankruptcy reform is supported widely in the House and Senate.

Advocates for bankruptcy reform argue that people who could afford to pay are sidestepping debt repayment by exploiting the bankruptcy code. Too many people instantly file for the wipe-out-all-your-debt Chapter 7 version of bankruptcy, they say, instead of working through the pay-what-you-can Chapter 13 version. Reform bills considered since the late 1990s would initially funnel more people into Chapter 13 bankruptcy before permitting them to file for Chapter 7. Previous Congresses passed such legislation but former President Clinton vetoed it; President Bush promised to sign but Congress won’t pass a bill with the Schumer amendment tacked on.

Abortion and bankruptcy seems an unlikely match at first glance but, in fact, Schumer may be on to something. Abortion and bankruptcy share numerous similarities and it makes me wonder whether a legislative approach similar to the one Congress is taking on bankruptcy reform might not be appropriate for the country’s policy on abortion. Consider these similarities:

About the same number of abortions are performed every year as number of personal bankruptcy cases filed (between 1.2 million and 1.5 million).

Women age 20-24 make up the largest group getting abortions; people between 18 and 24 make up the largest group filing for bankruptcy.

The reason most women give for having an abortion is “insufficient finances,” the same reason most people give for filing bankruptcy.

The Supreme Court says abortion and bankruptcy are constitutionally protected rights.

Bankruptcy and abortion both purport to solve immediate individual problems in exchange for potential long-term consequences. Bankruptcy filers can have trouble obtaining credit for years after they file; some people who have an abortion suffer angst or more serious disorder years later.

Bankruptcy and abortion both exact a price on society. Bankruptcy reform advocates say every American pays $400 per year in additional costs that make up for the money lost to bankruptcy cases. The value of more than 42 million Americans lost to abortion since 1973 is impossible to quantify; however, had the population grown by that much in the last 32 years, we would not be having a big public debate about financial stress on our nation’s Social Security system.

Finally, and most importantly, bankruptcy and abortion represent a failure on the part of our culture to help individuals achieve their personal potential. Although bankruptcy reform advocates focus on the small percentage of people who game the system, many people who file for bankruptcy do so because of catastrophic personal loss completely outside their control, such as astronomical medical bills not covered by health insurance. Existing social services or economic systems fall short and the victim files because they really have no other choice. The same can be said for many people who have abortions. Their partner abandons them, and the women feel unprepared to raise a child on their own. Publicly available prenatal care and social systems to assist single parents are so inadequate that the women feel they have no choice but to abort.

The idea behind bankruptcy reform is that bankruptcies are undesirable and that even though people have a right to bankruptcy, the public should make efforts to reduce the number of cases filed. Bankruptcy reform legislation typically includes provisions designed to prevent people from abusing the system and for educating sincere filers about avoiding circumstances that may contribute to future financial difficulty.

Shouldn’t our approach to this country’s abortion policy be similar? Even though abortion is legal, most people don’t want to see a high number of abortions. Just as it has with bankruptcy, Congress should take steps designed to reduce the number of abortions. Those steps could include improvements in publicly available prenatal care, better adoption programs, and additional assistance for single parents so that pregnant women abandoned by their partners feel carrying their child to term is a hopeful option.

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