Ross Douthat's "pro-family" nonsense: Poverty is a bigger threat than helicopter parenting

Conservatives' lack of concern for kids is on full display as they grapple with the arrest of Debra Harrell

Published July 21, 2014 4:31PM (EDT)

Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

This weekend, Thomas Friedman let everyone know that he was writing an ode to Airbnb not because he had maybe pre-written it and didn't want to shift gears in the wake of the the rising death toll in Gaza or the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that killed nearly 300 people -- but because he was all about "the future" and keeping a positive mental attitude. While it may have been impossible to top Friedman's cluelessness, a column from Ross Douthat came kind of close.

Douthat's weekend opinion piece also happens to be pretty representative of one of the most frustrating patterns in conservative thinking about reproductive justice and parenting, so it's worth taking a closer look at. Douthat starts out with a reasonable enough take on Debra Harrell, the South Carolina woman who was arrested after letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked her shift at a fast food chain. Like others before him, Douthat argued that an "upper-class, competition-driven vision of childhood as a rigorously supervised period in which unattended play is abnormal, risky, weird" -- compounded by a "disproportionate anxiety over child safety" and a breakdown of good old neighborly instincts -- was at the heart of the issue.

And fair enough to all of it. Yes, the rise in so-called helicopter parenting has certainly stripped kids of a lot of valuable autonomy while stigmatizing parents in the process. And yes, it's right to question why so many people think getting a mom arrested makes more sense than just checking in with her at McDonald's. But to leave it there would be to miss another pressing point, so of course Douthat leaves it there.

The glaring gaps in policy that this story exposes are nowhere to be found in Douthat's analysis. In fact, the only structural question he raises is his view that welfare work requirements are absolutely "essential." Not a word about access to child care or a living wage, two of the most pro-parent issues on the table right now. And this is the sad and exceedingly frustrating thing about the conservative view of reproductive justice: the people who claim to be "pro-family" (read: anti-abortion rights) generally don't like the policies that help parents support themselves and their children. Most of the time, they don't even acknowledge that the issues are connected.

This is the reason that the Tennessee lawmaker behind a law that criminalizes pregnancy outcomes can without hesitation say she opposes the Medicaid expansion, which she views as an entirely separate issue from pregnant people being able to access drug treatment. Or why Mitch McConnell wants to pass a federal ban on abortion at 20 weeks as a s0-called pro-baby policy, but opposes equal pay measures that would help lift women and families out of poverty, refuses to get behind a minimum wage that would ensure the same and wants to further gut the social safety net that allows kids to do really basic stuff like eat food. Or why Arizona lawmakers cut their state subsidy for childcare while mothers are being arrested for failing to secure childcare. (In a small bit of hopeful news, Shanesha Taylor has now entered into a plea agreement, and will likely be reunited with her children.) The list of this kind of hypocrisy is long. The list of families impacted is much, much longer.

And while supporting the Medicaid expansion or raising the minimum wage won't make the right's reflexive opposition to abortion care and contraception any less dangerous, conservatives should at the very least back up their claims about being "pro-family" by getting behind the policies that would benefit millions of them.

As Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress recently noted, women make up nearly 70 percent of the adults on Medicaid:

According to estimates from Planned Parenthood, if every state agreed to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare, 4.6 million low-income women of reproductive age would be able to have health care. Nonetheless, more than 20 GOP-controlled states continue to resist implementing this particular Obamacare provision, a move that’s leaving millions of low-income Americans without any access to affordable insurance whatsoever.

And as I've pointed out before, nearly two out of every three minimum-wage workers in this country is a woman. And many of those women are the primary caregivers in their households. And yet we're still trapped in this cycle in which conservative lawmakers and others on the right ignore all of this in favor of platitudes about personal responsibility and talking points that will do absolutely nothing to help working parents -- particularly working mothers -- care for themselves and their families. Likewise, it seems that Douthat is willing to go to bat for Harrell's "liberty" -- but not for her or her family.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

MORE FROM Katie McDonough