Sex, Lies, and Abortion
Recently I was invited to speak at a fundraiser organized by a Michigan right-to-life group, which had asked me to reflect on this question: "If the pro-life case is so strong, why aren't we winning?"
Since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the pro-life movement has labored mightily to overturn abortion on demand. It has achieved some victories: a restriction against partial-birth abortions, some parental notification laws, and a couple of significant court appointments.
Even so, the United States still has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world. The pro-life movement has made some progress in its arguments, but has failed to put even a dent in Roe v. Wade and successive rulings. Three and a half decades after Roe, the abortion casualty toll approaches a staggering 50 million.
The consensus among those gathered at the fundraiser was that the pro-life movement needs to educate more Americans about the grim reality of abortion. As one guest told me, "Most American women who go in for abortions simply don't realize that the unborn are human persons with rights." I disagree; I believe most women know this instinctively. But even if they don't know this or are unsure, they still have to weigh the risks of the procedure. And in a case of this importance, a case involving life and death, one has to give the unborn the benefit of the doubt. If a hunter sees something move behind a branch and isn't sure whether it's an animal or a human, is it reasonable for him to go ahead and shoot?
Factor in politics, and the mystery deepens. It seems bizarre that many who claim the political virtue of compassion are champions of abortion rights. These people are able to cry tears for just about every vulnerable group in the world. They feel the pain of the seals, they grieve over sex trafficking in Asia, and they are worried about the plight of children in Darfur. They react with genuine indignation and mobilize to take action. Why, then, do the unborn persons in their own communities not usually inspire a similar compassionate response?
The pro-choice slogan offers no explanation, because the legitimacy of "choice" depends on what is being chosen. Abraham Lincoln exposed this argument a century and a half ago. He argued that if Negroes are hogs, then there can be no question that people have the choice to buy and sell them. On the other hand, Lincoln said, if Negroes are human beings, then how can slave owners invoke "choice"—thus denying choice to other humans? In sum, choice cannot be defended without regard to the content of what's being chosen.
Why then, in the face of its bad arguments, does the pro-choice movement continue to prevail legally and politically?
I think it's because abortion is the debris of the sexual revolution. We have seen a great shift in the sexual mores of Americans in the past half-century. Today a widespread social understanding persists that if there is going to be sex outside marriage, there will be a considerable number of unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is viewed as a necessary clean-up solution to this social reality.
In order to have a sexual revolution, women must have the same sexual autonomy as men. But the laws of biology contradict this ideology, so feminists who have championed the sexual revolution—Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, among others—have found it necessary to denounce pregnancy as an invasion of the female body. The fetus becomes, in Firestone's phrase, an "uninvited guest." As long as the fetus occupies the mother's womb, these activists argue, the mother should be able to keep it or get rid of it at her discretion.