I find the beginning of this article to be the trickiest part, because I hope to engage my reader in two ways that are often incompatible. On the one hand, I want to be fully transparent about the position I take on this contentious matter, to avoid persuading via some deceptive holding-back of myself. On the other hand, I don’t want to be dismissed off-hand because I am labeled a fool or villain. Instead I hope that my speculation may actually provoke new thoughtfulness, even in those who do not agree with my beginning assumption. It may very well be fruitless to hope for this possibility, but I’ve decided to be hopeful nonetheless.
And so, I confess that I believe the large-scale legalized abortion of contemporary America to be every bit as morally evil as, for example, the large-scale legalized chattel slavery of colonial America. This is the assumption I bring to this speculation that ought to be said outright. Of course, I can also easily say that mothers who get abortions are caught up in a vast and complex and tragic Human Story, and for the most part, I have nothing but compassion for them. And, I denounce the ideas and actions of Paul Jennings Hill and the like. And, of course, abortion is not the world’s only problem.
There is a whole host of qualifications and thoughts around this that could certainly fill a book. But luckily, this article is not really about any of that—this article is not a moral analysis but a sociological one. I’m giving my position on the basic moral question up front merely to be honest with my reader.
To the real speculation. As a pro-lifer, I desire my society to stop performing abortions. However, some time ago, I realized that even if all abortions cease tomorrow, a tremendous problem would still remain: unplanned pregnancies. This is not a trivial detail: nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned. What are we to do about these unfortunate pregnancies? They are not magically going away.
Of course, there are good answers to this that are being implemented right now. The major one is improving the orphanage and foster care system, so that even if the parents will not provide for the children, someone else will. Another enormous help is making contraceptives more accessible, and persuading the public to use them. These two answers work on either end of the issue. The latter prevents unplanned pregnancies, and the former deals with them after they happen.
But, it occurs to me that both of these solutions are mitigations. Neither really attempt to analyze or address the root cause. To try and do that, allow me to diverge into history.
Before birth control, the linking of children with sex always informed sexual ethics. And this makes sense—if there was a high likelihood of a child coming from a sexual encounter, then anyone having sex better be ready for the possibility of children. To do otherwise would be deeply irresponsible.
But in the early to mid 20th century, contraceptives developed enough to be made widely available. This means that for the first time, it became more than merely academic to conceptually separate (heterosexual) sex from procreation. It had the unprecedented effect of making it practically feasible to have sex without conceiving children.
Once contraceptives shattered this inextricable linking between sex and procreation, it didn’t take long for the sexual revolution of the 60s to arrive. Now, some decades after the revolution, society generally treats sex quite casually. The transformation of sexual ethics has been tremendous; casual sex has become the assumption rather than the thesis.
However, there is a problem: birth control doesn’t totally work. Sometimes it isn’t used, sometimes it is used improperly, and sometimes it is used properly but still fails. When any of these happen and an unexpected child is the result, this is called an unplanned pregnancy.
What does this mean? It means that one of the big pillars of the sexual revolution—the separation of sex and procreation—is wobbly. Often, a couple is able to prevent unwanted pregnancy. But not always.
The fact that birth control is not 100% effective is a big deal. It means that the link between sex and procreation is not, in fact, shattered. And this, in turn, means that the main foundation of the old sexual ethics (specifically secular sexual ethics) is still relevant. Stated plainly, because children can still very much be produced from sex, a couple having sex still ought to consider this and accept responsibility for this if it happens. And to state the same proposition negatively, if you don’t want to accept the rearing of a child, then you ought not to have sex.
Now, with this framework of ideas, I consider abortion. What is abortion for, anyhow? What is its ultimate purpose? The answer springs to mind that abortion largely exists now to finally and truly separate children from sex, to make an ethic of casual sex feasible. It exists to clean up the unplanned pregnancies that contraceptives missed. This is precisely why we are left with an enormous problem of unplanned pregnancies if we remove abortion—abortion is the thing that is currently fixing this problem for us. Until contraceptives are 100% effective and adopted, abortion is necessary to keep the possibility of a sexual ethic that ignores procreation. Without abortion, sex could not be free. I have come to believe that that is the fundamental motivation.
And of course, it is worth saying here that I speak at the societal level and not the individual level. Probably these things are happening at the individual level in the subconscious, but in far more real ways they exist at the societal level. They are the underlying realities and ideas shaping our ethics and politics.
What does this mean for me, a pro-lifer? I take it as an assumption that abortion is unacceptable, but I also see that abortion is necessary to maintain my society’s sexual ethic. It would seem, then, that to discourage abortions, I also have to persuade my society to modify its sexual ethic. The struggle against abortion is also a struggle against a key tenet of the sexual revolution. It requires adding something back to the ethics of sex in addition to consent, something that was lost: the willingness to co-parent a child if a child happens to come from the sexual encounter.
Some concluding thoughts and expected criticisms addressed.
“The sexual revolution is about way more than heterosexual, vaginal sex.” Yes that is very true! My analysis has absolutely nothing to do with watching porn, homosexual sex, masturbation, or anything that inherently can’t produce children, since they have nothing to do with abortions.
“Abortion is less about casual sex and more about women’s liberation.” The idea being that abortion exists to remove privilege between the sexes. (The burden of pregnancy is inherently applied to women not men.) You could possibly say that, though the concepts I discussed are mostly the same either way. Instead of abortion being necessary to support an illusory severing of procreation from sex, abortion becomes necessary to support the illusory identicality of the sexes. In either case, my assumption is that abortion is unacceptable, which means the concepts it supports must be challenged. Luckily though, in my mind, the real goodness of women’s lib does not depend on abortion in the least. But that is a whole other topic.
“Do you oppose birth control then?” Not sure where you got that from. (Okay, actually I do. Birth control had to fight to be accepted, and still isn’t by the Catholic Church, for example.) I’ve been married three and a half years and don’t have any kids, so there you go. I just want to be realistic about the limits of birth control.
“What about all the research that shows that the surest way to reduce abortions is to have good sex education?” There is a lot to be said about this question, and it is probably the most interesting line of continued conversation. I can’t pursue all the branches here. But, firstly, I’m not primarily considering what tactical policies we should take in this article. I am (mostly) not thinking prescriptively but descriptively. That being said, I am also essentially arguing that a communication of the seriousness of the risk of procreation ought to be part of sex education. So I don’t really see a conflict between my article and this research. The thing is that procreation is not a serious risk if abortion is on the table, but I think abortion shouldn’t be on the table, therefore procreation is a serious risk. I think that in addition to imparting of the importance of protection during sex, it should be imparted that protection can fail, and when this happens it comes with serious consequences. (Oddly, my suggestion is to undermine faith in the very thing sex education wants to communicate as most important. While this is somewhat paradoxical I find it to be very sensible. I find it to be far odder to leave the importance of birth control untempered.) Plus, even if it is true that sex education is proven to successfully reduce unplanned pregnancies, it still seems to be doing quite a bad job, judging by the statistic mentioned above. Lastly, there seems to be something in this question that implies we ought to be content with reducing abortions as best we can, and leave it at that. This is only true if they are really not that big of a deal. Against that perspective, I think they are a real evil. Again, there is lots to be said about this question, and I would welcome a conversation on some of the threads touched on here.
“You underestimate the effectiveness of contraception if it is used correctly.” I am quite aware of the effectiveness of contraception. Even so, I would argue that because bringing a child into the world is very heavy thing, any possibility of doing so should be handled with caution and responsibility, even if that possibility is quite small. And more importantly, and more the main point of this article, the data seems to suggest that many do not use birth control properly or at all, evidenced by the large number of unplanned pregnancies that happen every year. Because this is the case, abortion is still necessary to bail them out, and the reasoning in the article stands. The new sexuality is stated to be “All consensual sex is permissible and should be normalized,” but the reality is that underneath this statement is an assumption that either 1) everyone is using birth control and birth control always works, or 2) abortion is permissible and should be normalized. This is the only way a sexuality could feasibly ignore the responsibility that procreation carries. 1 is obviously false, and I believe 2 is false, therefore I must conclude the new sexuality is missing something. If the new sexuality was actually, “All consensual sex between individuals who will accept the rearing of a child in the unlikely event a child is conceived is permissible and should be normalized,” then this article’s analysis would be nonsensical.
“But… abortions predate the sexual revolution, legal and otherwise.” Very true. However they have historically been disapproved by society, as has casual sex. We are in quite a different environment now, and I am not analyzing the past but the present.
“You keep talking of ‘abortions’ as if they are all a homogenous group, when really there are many, many different situations, types, lengths, etc. of unplanned pregnancies that each require their own wisdom to navigate.” This is a criticism against the underlying assumption that America’s general approval of abortion is morally horrifying. Though this is off-topic, I will clarify my position a bit more. Of course there are difficult moral questions around certain topics under the umbrella of abortion. Of course all situations require wisdom. In this article I am assuming the ethics of the general case, which is far more common than the exceptional cases, and which in my opinion, does not require great discernment to judge.
“Could you tell a teenage girl that she shouldn’t get an abortion when to fail to do so would probably ruin her life? You’ve either never actually dealt with this issue or are completely cold-hearted.” A serious accusation indeed. Let it just be said that the philosopher and the counselor may agree on every point and yet speak to their listeners very differently. In this article I am speaking as a philosopher, and not as a counselor.
“You have only talked about the effect of procreation on sexual ethics; why leave out specifically Christian ideas of sexual ethics?” My goal in this article is not to persuade others to adopt a Christian sexual ethic, but primarily to speculate on the roots of contemporary abortion, secondarily to persuade that the current sexual ethic is incomplete, and tertiarily to promote general thoughtfulness around these topics.