Every year, about half-a-million people descend upon Washington DC, and many more march in other cities, to call for the end of abortion. It is probably the most noble and most important social movement in the country right now: one of the few that is both appropriate to the moment, possessed of a clear and achievable goal, and which deals with a vitally important issue.
It is thus with a heavy heart that I say they are never going to succeed. At least, not if things stay they way they are. Pro-lifers, as they are called, are up against something far more vast and complex and powerful than most of us seem to understand.
Put it this way; say the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade tomorrow. That would be a very good thing, as far as it went, and most likely abortion would then become illegal or mostly illegal in at least some states. But the problem is, it wouldn’t last. Sooner or later the balance of the polls would shift, new justices would take the place of the old, and another case would come before a restructured court, or new laws would be introduced, and the slaughter would begin all over again.
This is because abortion is only a symptom. A terrible symptom, but a symptom nonetheless. It derives from a much larger cultural and social movement, and what is key, it is necessary to that movement.
The movement is not, as it is sometimes described, the devaluation of human life as such. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that once Hiroshima happened, Roe was inevitable. With respect to the great man, that is nonsense, whatever you think of the bombings. An act of war, justified or not, is clearly in a different category from a peacetime law.
The fact is that abortion does not primarily stem from a devaluation of life; it stems from the overvaluation of sex and, more fundamentally, of self-will. The devaluation of life is a parallel consequence of this.
In other words, the real problem is neither abortion itself, nor a culture that doesn’t value life, but what is called the Sexual Revolution: the radical movement to overthrow moral and legal restrictions on sexual indulgence in favor of an ideology of self-will.
The origins, philosophical and historical, of that movement are too complicated to go into here. The point is that this is the true enemy, and as long as it remains in place, abortion will as well.
The sexual revolution is based upon the idea that the only relevant rules in sexual matters are consent and (possibly) fidelity. It proposes that each person should be able to decide for his or herself the way in which he will be sexually active and the meaning that sexuality will have. This is the doctrine of self-will, which was explicitly expressed by Justice Kennedy in his ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The great flaw in this view is that nature itself imposes certain meanings upon human life which are not amenable to individual definitions. In particular, when it comes to sexual activity, it imposes the fact of reproduction, regardless of any consent or desire on the part of the participants (there are other ‘imposed facts’ as well, but this is the most blatant). Therefore, in order for these new ideas of sexuality to stand up even for the briefest of considerations some means is required to prevent intercourse from resulting in a child.
Hence contraception and abortion: the twin props without which the sexual revolution cannot stand (no-fault divorce is the third, but that is for another time). Contraception obviously is necessary in order to render the likelihood of pregnancy as low as possible, artificially creating circumstances where the new ideology is at least superficially plausible (I will leave off, for now, the wisdom of a worldview dependent for its credibility upon the existence and accessibility of a particular human technology).
Abortion too is necessary because it allows us to say that we are in control of our bodies: that we dictate the meaning and content of our behavior. It isn’t just that we prevent the consequences of our actions, we actively subvert them once they occur.
Ultimately, the sexual revolution is about claiming this authority to dictate the meaning of our actions, which means controlling the consequences. Abortion is necessary to this, all the more so because the Sexual Revolution coincided with the movement to bring more women into the workforce. You obviously cannot have both an active sex life and a flourishing career if you do not have a way to prevent and to end pregnancies before a child is born. Since we moderns find the idea of choosing one or the other to be abhorrent, we accept infanticide.
This is why pro-abortionists are so passionate about this issue, and why they will defend and even celebrate abortion to the end: because a large segment of our culture is dependent upon the ideas of the Sexual Revolution. Whole industries rely upon it, and even those that don’t go that far often find it extremely profitable.
That alone would make it punishingly hard to dislodge, but there is something else; something that, even in our culture, people value more than profit: self-respect. A huge number of people have staked their images of themselves and their friends as good people upon the ideas of the Sexual Revolution. It allows them to justify actions that otherwise would be seen to be wrong, and which most of them would never have done if they weren’t assured from all corners that it was acceptable. The maintaining of the ideology of the Sexual Revolution is necessary for many, many people to continue to think well of themselves. And abortion is necessary to maintain that ideology.
In other words, ending abortion doesn’t just mean enacting new laws or convincing a majority of the population of the humanity of an unborn child: it will involve convincing a large portion of the population that the moral standards by which they, their friends, and their parents have been living are simply wrong, with all the implications that come with it. That is in addition to overturning assumptions upon which much of our commerce and most of our culture now rests.
That is what we are up against. We’re struggling and fighting against an entrenched fortress when really it’s only guarding the pass to a whole Empire with forces beyond reckoning waiting for us.
When Imperial Japan was gearing up for war with the United States, some of the military brass warned their comrades what such a war would mean: it wouldn’t be a matter of taking Hawaii and California, they would have to somehow find a way to strike at the industrial and agricultural heartland and march into Washington. The pro-life cause is, of course the very reverse of that of Imperial Japan, yet the example applies to us as well. The fight we are engaging in is not to enact one law, or end one practice. We may wish that were all, but the nature of our enemy forbids it. This war must be a war of total conquest or of total defeat, and our enemy is very strong indeed.
I don’t bring this up to discourage those in the pro-life movement, but I do think we should be clear on our goals. It cannot be just to end abortion, or same-sex marriage, or any of the other obvious manifestations of the sexual revolution: that would be a temporary solution at best. The whole ideology has to be ripped up, root and branch, which will involve something akin to conversion and repentance on a national scale, along with a near-total rebuilding of our culture.
With that in mind, shall we begin?