There is no legislative solution to the problem of abortion. There is no president who can end abortion. There is no Supreme Court justice who will solve abortion.
This is not just because we Americans, including we American Christians, have been shouting at each other about abortion for more than 40 years, with no end in sight. It is not just because the conflicting beliefs that people have about abortion are unlikely to change. It is not just because our polarized interest groups and political parties now gain support off of abortion. It is not just because the two “sides” on abortion are roughly balanced and appear likely to remain so.
Abortion is the sad song that never ends. It never ends because at one level it is an intractable human problem, visible in all times and cultures. It goes like this: Fertile heterosexual males and females are needy, passionate, sexual creatures who are drawn to each other and often end up having sex. They do so for all kinds of reasons, some good, some just okay, some terrible. When a fertile male and fertile female are “shooting with live bullets,” sometimes the woman will get pregnant. This is true sometimes when they are using birth control and certainly when they are not using birth control. The God-given power of mammalian reproduction is not easily denied.
Almost every known society has attempted to create systems of social control to limit sexual contact between fertile men and women, in large part because of the procreative power of the mature human body. These have been remarkably comprehensive social systems. They have involved religious, political, legal, moral, communal, and familial efforts to train attitudes, impose constraints, inflame fears, and so on. Always they have involved efforts to limit private contact between sexually mature men and women outside of the socially approved context for procreation—usually, marriage.
Christian traditions have done this in their own way, and many readers are of course intimately familiar with the strategies that have been attempted. The highest sources of religious authority (Bible, church) have been cited to ban sex between unmarried men and women. For centuries, and often still today, shaming efforts, especially of women who violate the ban, have been intense and harmful. The moral goodness of sex has been rejected altogether or, in recent decades, rejected until the wedding night. Churches have sought to support families in holding back the awesome power of sex for as long as possible, always with varying rates of success. Young couples have been pressed to marry as early and as quickly as possible. Babies born “out of wedlock” for centuries were labeled with ugly epithets to complete the shaming of “fallen women.”
A perfect storm for unwanted pregnancies
None of those efforts ever proved completely successful in holding back the tide. But since the 1960s they have collapsed. Perhaps a nation as congenitally committed to personal freedom as America would always have been hard soil for efforts to keep the unmarried apart.
But all kinds of factors have conspired at least since World War II to create a society whose conditions constitute a perfect storm for abortion. Mass access to automobiles; coeducational schools; women’s empowerment to pursue professional ambitions; lack of parental oversight of dating relationships; liberalizing attitudes toward the morality of non-marital sex, with all kinds of media encouraging further liberalization; the development, legalization, and mass distribution of contraception (combined with uneven use of it across the population); gradual delaying of the age of marriage due to the shift to a knowledge-based economy—these are among the features of our perfect storm.
The historic 1973 decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion was both result and cause of what has become a culture deeply dependent on abortion. (Doe v. Bolton, decided the same day, also matters. That decision rendered even the late-term ban on abortion hopelessly weak.) The scheme to break the moral status of the fetus down along a trimester model was flimsy at the time and has collapsed since, and the legal rationale in a “right to privacy” never was all that persuasive.
What the justices really should have said was something like this: “Given the powerful demand for abortion in our society, which has emerged based on an unforeseen convergence of social factors, any ban or serious limitation on women’s access to abortion would be as unenforceable as Prohibition—and would be especially oppressive for women facing pregnancies that in their circumstances are personally disastrous. Regardless of one’s personal religious or moral beliefs about abortion, an unenforceable law is a bad law, so we hereby grant access to abortion with the following limits ...” If these limits had followed European models, they could have included a ban on (non-emergency) abortions after a certain number of weeks, perhaps 16.
As it was, the court opened a societal wound that has never healed, despite several later efforts by the court to reconsider the issue (such as the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case). Both pro-life and pro-choice activists have become more absolutist in the intervening years. State laws before 1973 had reflected and integrated a variety of human(e) considerations, including the circumstances of the pregnancy, the health of the fetus, and the stage of the pregnancy. Thoughtful Christians and others actually were able to discuss the pros and cons of various approaches to abortion law—three/two/one/no exceptions, timing, etc. And positions on abortion were not locked into a partisan or liberal/conservative binary.
But increasingly in the decades after 1973, it became all or nothing—no limits on abortion ever, for any reason, no slowdowns, no speed bumps, no moral pressure to consider options vs. no access to abortion ever, for any reason, in any circumstance.
So the extremes prevailed, reinforcing each other, often with competing horror stories. Here’s the 24-week-old fetus that barely survived a late-term abortion and now lives. There’s the fragile 11-year-old rape victim who may die carrying her legally enforced pregnancy to term. The idea that we might be able to create a legal framework in which we can agree that both of those rare situations must never happen has proved to be beyond us. And meanwhile, the everyday, “garden variety” abortions go on and on and on, because the social circumstances that create them remain unchanged, if not worsened.
A meaningful path forward
What is an anxious Christian to do about all this? Understanding the universal human and then particularly American cultural factors that lie behind the demand for abortion should certainly help.
Absent a social revolution, the effort to reduce abortion on the demand side is the only meaningful path forward. This involves creating subcultures of resistance to a culture dependent on abortion. This is the one thing the churches can really do that is meaningful. Teaching sexual restraint without shame. Teaching best practices for birth control when sexual restraint has reached its limit. Creating family and church communities that can support couples who face unwanted pregnancies and are seeking alternatives to abortion.
There are times when policies really are pretty extreme and need to be addressed. Having actually held dead 18-week fetuses in my hands on two particularly sad days of my life, I think it is indeed a travesty that abortion is permitted in non-emergency circumstances as late as that. But I would also very strongly oppose any hard-right turn that would start banning abortion for pre-teens who have been raped or are victims of incest.
Probably the basic structure of abortion law in the U.S. will change little, though there is the outside chance that the matter will be sent back to the states, which would then reimpose the patchwork quilt of laws like those that existed prior to 1973. This would reconfigure the circumstances that women would face who desire to end their pregnancies, and in many cases increase their hardship.
But this outcome, which many in the pro-life movement would consider a huge achievement, would do nothing to change the convergent social forces that have gotten us where we are. So I do not think it should be our focus. Instead, we must address the prevention side, the demand side—and we must take the side of young women who need deep personal and systemic help to avoid having to face that miserable drive to the abortion clinic.
Adapted from A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends (Westminster John Knox, Sept. 2016).