The public conversation—if it can be called that—over abortion rose to hysterical heights with the demise of Roe v. Wade, and it has become central to national politics, especially on the left. But the conversation always stops short at a certain point. I want to review how the discussion proceeds and then show where it stops—where the ultimate underlying assumptions should reveal themselves. And that will reveal the daunting task that lies ahead for the pro-life movement, as it tries to change the culture.
The arguments regarding abortion are familiar to us all. From “keep your hands off my body” and “no, it’s a different body,” through “the fetus is too dependent to be separate” and “newborns are dependent, too,” to “the fetus is not really a person” and “the fetus has its own DNA and development,” and so forth.
Some pro-choice advocates will go so far as to say that the embryo or fetus is a parasite upon or an unjust aggressor against the mother, and pro-life advocates ask: “Well, how did the embryo or fetus get there, in the mother’s womb?” The answer is usually “failed contraception” and the contention that, even if a person knows that conceiving a child is possible, a woman doesn’t have to accept what she didn’t intend.
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At some point, the pro-life advocate may ask: “If you don’t want to be in the position of ‘needing’ to terminate it, why didn’t you just not have sex?”
At this point, silence fills the room—perhaps due to disbelief that anyone would make such a strange, even outrageous, suggestion. The silence might quickly be followed by mockery and derision. Not have sex?! Without abortion as a backup to failed contraception, the “price” of sex skyrockets—it is the price of possibly having a child.
But, to a typical American today, the idea that you should only have sex if you are willing to accept a child that results from it (despite efforts to prevent that) sounds simply loony tunes. Why? To a typical American today, the idea that you should only have sex if you are willing to accept a child that results from it (despite efforts to prevent that) sounds simply loony tunes. Why?Tweet This
Because people think that sex is really, really great. (It can be.) It feels really good, and they think it often fosters an interpersonal intimacy, whether long-lived or short-lived, that human beings greatly desire. (It can.) It is, fundamentally, an imperative and almost universal human need, it is said. To deny people the possibility of having sex on the grounds that sex might result in a very early-stage human being would be to impose fetters on them that are destructive of human well-being and happiness.
But this is obviously not necessarily the case—many millions of human beings in the past, for example, have confined sex to marriage and been quite happy. Perhaps we have constructed a society—a deeply contraceptive society—in which people think it is impossible to be happy without ready access to sex?
On this view, the choice is between a) permitting abortion, as a solution to failed contraception, in order to protect the right of people to have sex when they want it, and b) forbidding abortion, to protect early-stage human life. The latter choice would mean confining sex to situations in which we are at least willing to accept the child that might result.
That second choice seems not just wrong but absolutely, utterly unthinkable to many (I think most) Americans today—because they are deeply committed to the view that sex is something that most human beings just can’t do without.
It would take a long discussion to examine the pros and cons of this view. For now, I just want to ask three questions.
First, if sex is an imperative need—rather than a free act of self-giving to one’s beloved—what does that say about the human-ness of sex? Is it truly a free human act, or is it basically an instinctual one—something that “you just gotta have”?
If the answer to the first question is that sex is something you just have to have and not something you can do without, then—the second question—hasn’t our society, in a very deep way, trivialized sex? Could Shakespeare or Donne or other poets have written a beautiful sonnet about sexual love that expressed the view, “I just gotta have it”? If having sex is basically an unavoidable response to an irresistible biopsychological urge, how seriously can a person take the invitation to sex as a sure sign of real, committed love?
Pre-Marital Sex in America, the preeminent sociological study of the subject by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, points out that pre-marital sex leaves many women damaged and unhappy. How many women have thought that sex was a step on the road to lasting, committed love, when it turned out to have been merely a pit stop for fun and pleasure?
Years ago, I read a book (written by an academic who was entirely pro-choice) that described the attitude toward sex among pro-choice advocates this way: “Sex is like volleyball, only it’s more fun.” Sex is a pleasant recreation, though some people may, of course, choose to invest it with more meaning, if they want to. But there is no deep meaning in sex that is inherent in the act. Sex is not a “sacrament” of love: something that represents committed love and makes it present.
The third question is this: if people say that sex is truly an irresistible urge, and abortion is necessary in order to accommodate that urge, shouldn’t we wonder whether the argument that “an embryo or fetus is not human” is simply a rationalization? Its purpose is to make it easier to accomplish what must be accomplished, namely, clearing obstacles from the path of having sex—obstacles such as qualms of conscience, if the embryo or fetus is really human.
We have a clear historical example of this kind of argument. At the beginning of our nation, most of the founders recognized that slaves were human beings and sincerely believed that slavery was wrong. But many of them could not see a way of abolishing slavery in a way that would not shake the economic and social foundations of southern society, and so men like Jefferson temporized. But human beings find this “cognitive dissonance” difficult to sustain. It’s hard to believe that slavery is deeply wrong and still go on maintaining it.
Unsurprisingly, a generation later that cognitive dissonance was resolved by a new brand of southern leader who argued that slavery was not wrong, that, in fact, it was just and good according to natural law and Christianity. They made arguments that we find ludicrous today.
But many of those who today harshly criticize the founders for tolerating slavery, because they ignored the humanity of the slave, themselves tolerate abortion, ignoring the obvious humanity of the very early-stage human being in the womb. They make risible arguments, e.g., that the embryo or fetus is not a human being (however undeveloped yet). They do it, typically (and sincerely), in the name of “equality for women.”
Changes in our society demonstrate, I think, that we have the ability to ensure women’s equality even without terminating the lives of unborn human beings, if we have the will to do it. So, abortion advocates should be honest about what they are doing: defending the killing of what is clearly human life in its early stages. And they are doing it because, just as slaveholders could not imagine life without slavery, abortion rights advocates cannot imagine a life without free access to sex. And, therefore, they must refuse to recognize the responsibilities entailed by bringing a new human life into existence, even unintentionally—though with unavoidable awareness of the possibility.
Yet neither side of the argument has a strong interest in making this assumption very clear in the debate. Abortion rights advocates have no interest in emphasizing this implicit argument because it makes their position less attractive (ending early-stage human lives to maintain a right to sex without consequences?) and, more importantly, it raises questions about the real rationale for their denial that prenatal life is human.
Defenders of prenatal human life have an interest in not emphasizing this argument because it might make their prospects look less hopeful. Occasionally, some do accept this challenge—see Live Action’s effective satire “The Supreme Court Ruined Our Sex Lives.” But they are often, somewhat understandably, reluctant to confront it publicly.
If it is (lamentably) true that a majority of Americans are simply committed to the free availability of sex, regardless of its outcomes (i.e., unwanted human lives), what is the likelihood that the pro-life movement will be able to change that commitment? What will it take to change it? And how long will it take, especially in a society overwhelmingly committed to contraception?