Pro-life Catholics fall into two camps on the issue of abortion: those who see it first and foremost as an individual moral failing, and those who consider it primarily a social moral failing.
There is nothing mutually exclusive about the two positions, of course, but that isn’t the problem. The real issue here is emphasis; that in turn determines how we prioritize our resources and efforts, where we believe the pressure points are, and how to strike them.
Since I myself lean toward the social explanation for abortion, I want to clarify it for those who disagree. At times we are accused of — and are indeed guilty of — materialist reductionism. There are some within the Church (and on the pro-life side of the spectrum in general) who focus almost exclusively on social concerns. Similarly, there were many Catholics who thought supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy during the 2008 election was a morally acceptable choice, because they believed his economic policies would strike at the root causes of abortion.
Unfortunately, the facts do not entirely support the argument. While it is true that some abortions — perhaps a significant number — might be reduced through economic policies that address the problems facing young, single mothers, the majority of abortions are sought by people living comfortably above the poverty line.
Of course, this argument was premised on another — that Obama would necessarily pursue policies that would serve the interests of women likely to get abortions. Even assuming that his intentions are sincere, he is still limited by the economy, especially in the midst of a recession. If the “reduce abortion through social spending” argument was plausible before the financial crisis, it has become less so now. There is therefore no good reason to expect a quick solution to the problem of abortion, whether or not one believes the economy is at the root of it.
On the other hand, those who believe deliverance lies in the mere reversal of Roe v. Wade should consider how much the culture and political landscape have changed in the last 40 years. Even if it were true that abortion fell into our laps because of what a cabal of judges decided in 1973, we have nevertheless had nearly four decades of what Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae described as a vast, orchestrated conspiracy against the sanctity of life (12, 17).
The culture of death is here, and it is both powerful and growing. Consider, for instance, that as voters flocked to the polls in November to reject gay marriage in the state of California, they also rejected by a solid margin a simple parental notification law for minors seeking abortions. Pro-life ballot measures failed in other states as well — red states. If one’s hope is entirely placed in politics, it’s a bad sign.
Abortion will go away when the majority of Americans wants it to go away. According to one study, “At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45 and, at current rates, about one-third will have had an abortion.” This of course does not include the millions of men who will push their girlfriends or wives into getting abortions, or the parents who do the same with their daughters.
Having moved past both the quick-fix economic and political solutions, we see that the fundamental issue is chiefly an economic one, though not in the way the typical left-liberal Catholic conceives of it. The problem is not too little wealth and income, but rather too much.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the United States adopted some of the economic theories of the British economist John Keynes, who argued that the key to avoiding another depression was increased consumption by the masses. The war-time industry was converted into production of consumer goods, and a semi-official theory of consumerism became a part of American life. The importance of this development is highlighted by John Paul II as he explained the phenomenon of consumerism in Centesimus Annus:
A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man (36, bold emphasis added).
What comprehensive picture of man was Western society guided by as it turned to consumerism?
Since the 1950s we have been “The Affluent Society,” and we considered it our patriotic duty to build a consumer paradise to one-up Soviet communism. During this time a generation was born that would hardly know material want and would take for granted the sort of freedom from toil that was formerly reserved to the wealthy. It was a reality for which no one was prepared, a case where sweeping economic change had a profound cultural effect. As conservative commentator Robert Bork explained in the opening paragraph of his classic work, Slouching towards Gomorrah:
What did they want, these students? What conceivable goals led them to this and to the general havoc they were wreaking on the university? Living in the Sixties, my faculty colleagues and I had no understanding of what it was about, where it came from, or how long the misery would last. It was only much later that a degree of understanding came.
Bork is right to identify both rampant egalitarianism and individualism as both chief symptoms and further causes of many problems in our society, up to and including abortion. But he lacks a coherent explanation for the origin of these currents. I would argue they emerged out of the relative material independence made possible by the conversion of vast swaths of the economy to the production of consumer goods, as well as the application of science and technology to the needs facing the everyday person and household. In other words, Americans have grown accustomed to freedom from physical necessity, wherein, to quote John Paul II once more, “needs were few and were determined, to a degree, by the objective structures of [man’s] physical make-up.” This is true with respect to children and family life as well.
The fact is, the bearing and raising of children has lost a certain objective necessity that it once had; historically, children were not only objects of familial love but also economic resources. Boys became workers, and girls were married off to create advantageous social connections between families. Today, by contrast, we live in a culture where many of the children lucky enough to be born at all are idealized, coddled, and pampered to a degree hitherto unknown in history. As a result, their adulthood is often unnaturally delayed by a thousand laws and social conventions that premise “growing up too fast” as the worst of all possible fates (see Hara Estroff Marano’s A Nation of Wimps for an excellent overview of this phenomenon).
Abortion and delayed adulthood are two sides of the same coin, the displacement of children from their earlier position in society and their replacement into a role that accommodates the consumerist mentality. Failing to recognize the historically shaped economic underpinnings of the family unit leaves us flabbergasted when those same underpinnings dissolve, and human behaviors and desires change as a result. This is not to say that human beings should ever be regarded merely as objects of economic utility, but simply that they do (or did) possess that utility, in addition to their inherent dignity and value as children of God.
I have no objection to a greater degree of social equality, a wider sphere for individual creativity and initiative, or the application of science for the betterment of our lives. Nevertheless, historically, these things arrived after the entire social structure of the Middle Ages had disintegrated. Progress came violently and with overt hostility toward the Church and its “comprehensive picture of man.” Yet Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo Anno, argued that there is no logical connection between social and technological progress on the one hand, and the destruction of the essential principles of the old social order on the other:
For there was a social order once which, although indeed not perfect or in all respects ideal, nevertheless, met in a certain measure the requirements of right reason, considering the conditions and needs of the time. If that order has long since perished, that surely did not happen because the order could not have accommodated itself to changed conditions and needs by development and by a certain expansion, but rather because men, hardened by too much love of self, refused to open the order to the increasing masses as they should have done, or because, deceived by allurements of a false freedom and other errors, they became impatient of every authority and sought to reject every form of control.
Who today can fail to see the seeds of the “pro-choice” mentality in what the pope describes: men and women “hardened by too much love of self,” “deceived by the allurements of a false freedom,” “impatient of every authority,” and who “reject every form of control”? It should not be shocking, then, that a progress founded upon these flaws should culminate in a total rejection of parental responsibilities (which is what abortion boils down to).
Can the trend be reversed? Yes. Since there is no logical link between progress and evil, there is no reason we cannot envision a society where science and technology are put at the service of life. But many of us still need to come to terms with the extent to which even we are infected by those same errors and deceptions (if we fail to see the link between consumerism and abortion in America, we might look at what is taking place in China). The creation of a culture of life requires more than political activism: It demands a transformation of lifestyle.
Joe Hargrave writes from Phoenix. He blogs at A New Catholic Paradigm, Vox Nova, and American Catholic.