Abortion, American Culture and the Limits of Law

The 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade finds anti-abortion legal efforts in the ascendancy in many states. As reported in The New York Times on Saturday, the Republican blowout in the November elections has brought anti-abortion governors and legislators to power in large numbers. Legislation under consideration would continue shredding the old Roe trimester model by pushing back the deadline for a legal abortion as early as 20 weeks. And the permission granted by the Supreme Court in recent decades for states to impose their versions of informed consent is now being exploited by proposed legislation that would require women to watch an ultrasound before going ahead with an abortion.

Our legal stalemate about abortion is like a football game, with the two rival teams pushing each other back and forth across the 50-yard line and neither team able to win -- especially if winning is defined by either the total banning of abortion on the one side or its unhindered legalization and funding as a routine health care practice on the other. The pro-life and pro-choice establishments appear committed to the continuation of this game of smash-mouth abortion football until the end of time.

It is quite a spectacle, but the legal struggle is actually a distraction from the unresolved cultural and moral issues that have created it. Three of these may be worth reviewing as we do our annual marches in the street:

  • The collapse of any cultural assumption that sex is to be reserved for marriage and that marriage is the best context in which to conceive and raise children.

This collapse, which evolved gradually in western culture but accelerated dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, means that millions of men and women are having sex in all kinds of relational contexts on the assumption that they will be able to prevent or end pregnancy if such an accident should occur. But human fertility is not so easily thwarted. Therefore, our culture's sexual practices, to which we have been absolutely committed since the 1960s, appear to require routine access to abortion. We cannot address the abortion problem without addressing our national sexual ethic, which has evolved from the ancient tradition that sex belongs in marriage, to the briefly regnant social norm that sex belongs in committed relationships, to the current standard that sex belongs wherever I want it to belong.

  • The devolution of male-female relationships from a striving for a mutual lifetime covenant to short-term use of one another for individual sexual and emotional needs.

There is a great ambivalence in all discussions of the contemporary abortion problem about the extent to which it is an issue of women's moral choices versus the responsibility of women and men as individuals, or women and men together, e.g., couples. I noticed this when I participated in the much-discussed "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference on abortion at Princeton this fall. The classic pro-choice position emphasizes that "reproductive choice" related to the decision to carry a pregnancy to term solely rests with the woman. But this gain for women's autonomy is purchased, at least to a great extent, at the expense of men's responsibility for the children they help to conceive. And it contributes to a cultural climate in which sex is not a part of a mutual covenant between a man and a woman who both bear responsibility for its consequences, but instead the act of individual need-meeting moral agents whose interests and rights differ dramatically if sex should accidentally result in the conception of a child. This deepens the distrust between men and women in our culture.

  • The overall transition from a focus on doing what is right to an emphasis on my rights.

This is a more subtle transition and extends back much further in western history. My claim here is that the western intellectual heritage -- I speak especially of historic Christianity and Judaism -- trained people for a very long time to orient their lives around living rightly, as right living was prescribed by their faith. There was a given moral framework to the universe and our responsibility was to fit our lives to that framework, which, of course, these faith traditions believed came from God.

It is quite a shift from that to the widely held contemporary belief that I create my own moral framework autonomously and that I have the right to the practice of whatever that moral framework leads me to choose to do. This then bumps up against everyone else's claim to the right to pursue whatever they believe their rights are based on their own personalized framework. Society becomes a chaotic collision of rights-claims, with everything ending up in court.

I called the entire abortion problem a tragedy at the Princeton conference, and I stand by it. I think our cultural moral confusions about sex, male-female relationships and rights are visited disproportionately upon the spirits and bodies of women, for only women get pregnant; and, of course, on the incipient unborn lives with which women's lives are intertwined and which so often do not see the light of day. Every woman looking up the phone number for the abortion clinic is a symbol of this tragedy.

These cultural problems will never be resolved by legislation. If abortion were to be banned in all 50 states tomorrow, and nothing else I have described were to change, there would still be hundreds of thousands of women seeking abortions each year in America. Abortion law is relevant. But the problems go deeper than the law, and therefore so must the solutions. Those seeking such solutions must work together across the old battle lines, because we need the best that each has to offer if we are to make any headway on this human crisis at all.