"Make Birth Free" would enhance the life prospects of children, reduce the turn to abortion, and could allow more humane and less medicalized birthing alternatives to flourish. The Sheppard-Towner Act from the early 1920s set forth a precedent for public policy on this front, and set no income test on potential clients: this would be an “entitlement” available to all, without cost.
In recent years, several pro-life advocates have called for the adoption of a federal policy to “Make Birth Free” by covering 100% of the pregnancy costs of all affected American women. Writing in The Atlantic in 2022, Elizabeth Bruenig called for free childbirth, urging the foes of abortion within the Republican Party to break from “business” and “fiscal conservatives” who deplore expensive new entitlements for mothers and babies. More recently in Compact magazine, Catherine Glenn Foster of Americans United for Life and Kristen Day of Democrats for Life offered a bipartisan plan under the same label to overcome our nation’s “disordered politics and warped economy” so as to encourage pregnant women and protect both preborn and newborn children.
These advocates have actually resurrected a sharp, if now largely forgotten, policy debate over the very same issues conducted a century ago: the triumph and eventual failure of The Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act. In 1919, the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor reported that maternal deaths in childbirth during the prior year numbered 23,000, an increase of 7,000 since 1916. According to the Bureau, 80% of expectant American mothers still received no prenatal advice or care, while the infant mortality rate stood at 100 deaths per 1000 live births, nearly twice the figure found in West European lands.
Dedicated to “Baby Saving,” the Bureau organized “National Baby Week” in 1916. Over 4,200 communities and an amazing 11 million women took part in baby-care seminars and good-natured “Best Mother” contests and heard orators praise motherhood as a vital element of national welfare. As historian Molly Ladd-Taylor recounts: “Like military heroes, mothers with infants in arms paraded down Main Street to the applause of flag-waving townspeople.”1 As a next step in this campaign, Bureau Chief Julia Lathrop drafted a measure to provide federal funds for state-level programs of instruction in maternal and infant hygiene, prenatal child health clinics, and visiting nurses for pregnant and new mothers. Importantly, the proposal would set no income test on potential clients: this would be an “entitlement” available to all, without cost.