Abortion has consistently been the most fractious social issue of the past half-century of American life. This may be about to change.
It's hard to imagine, I know. After all, there are reasons why abortion has been so divisive for so long. Pro-lifers like myself see legal abortion as a scourge that has claimed tens of millions of human lives in the United States alone. By contrast, many progressives see it as a necessary guarantor of women's full social equality. These battle lines seem deeply etched into our social consciousness. What could possibly soften them?
I can think of several possibilities. First of all, contraceptives have become considerably more effective even just over the past few years. The newest IUDs and hormonal implants do seem to prevent pregnancy with some (though still not perfect) reliability. We may soon reach a point where contraceptives are nearly failproof, with little or no margin for "user error." When unplanned pregnancies become an extreme rarity, the demand for abortion will fall too. If I were in the abortion-providing business, I'd be worrying about a lot more than just Supreme Court nominations.
Contraceptives are just the beginning, though. You won't need them if, like increasing numbers of young people, you're not interested in sex in the first place. They'll also be superfluous if declining male sperm counts make conception an ever more remote possibility. When today's kids reach adulthood, they may be so concerned about achieving pregnancy that they lose interest in fighting over whether and how it should be ended.
One more possibility looms on the political horizon. What if the pro-life movement becomes so wedded to toxic political currents that it alienates the younger generation and women, finally losing its long-standing influence?
Pro-life activism has always attracted many women, and there remain many robustly pro-female strands of the movement, which could become more prominent in future years. And yet ... the Trumpified right has shown its chauvinistic colors more abundantly than any recent conservative movement. That's not remotely appealing to younger voters or women. Rallying around repugnant figures like Roy Moore, or defending Brett Kavanaugh (from charges he denies) with "boys will be boys" excuses, is an excellent way to drive pro-life advocacy to the margins of American life.
Let's suppose, through some combination of the above factors, that abortion simply recedes from public consciousness as a pressing social issue. How might that change our social and political landscape?
First and most obviously, it would throw our political parties completely for a loop. That might well be good, since it would put greater pressure on parties to draft realistic, substantive platforms. Voters too might be disoriented by the blurring of familiar political-tribal lines, which should alarm you if you're currently making a bundle "consulting" for your own super PAC. For everyone else, it's probably good news. Virtually no one seems to find our current political atmosphere uplifting or healthy.
Old controversies give way to new ones, of course. Sex and human reproduction would surely remain contentious issues. Some alliances might be strained or broken in the process. In recent decades, religious traditionalists (motivated by a love of family and the belief that human life is precious in all phases) have had reason to link arms with resentful masculinists, mainly interested in waging war with feminism. The feminists, for their part, came to see traditional sexual mores as a patriarchal strategy for fencing them out of the public square. In their effort to fight back, they became fellow travelers with sex-positive libertines, demanding contraceptives and legal abortion, and urging women to gratify sexual impulses without shame.
All of these associations could change. Already in the #MeToo movement, we see feminism veering away from sex-positivity, even as certain anti-feminists argue vociferously for the naturalness and normalcy of man's sexual objectification of woman. In a post-abortion world, we might see women and traditionalists more regularly joining forces, as in earlier periods of American history. A new generation of virtue warriors might urge men to be more honorable and women more modest, while expounding on the benefits of chastity, commitment, and sexual restraint. On the other side, libertine ranks might be flooded with masculinists, sounding like testosterone-charged beatniks as they enthuse about the uninhibited joy of free love.
Reproduction would remain a fraught subject in a post-abortion world. As technology advances, we're forced to confront an increasingly difficult slate of questions about who should have babies (and when and why), and who should raise them. Is it appropriate to freeze your eggs and then impregnate yourself at 50? How do we feel about wealthy gay or infertile couples paying impoverished women to bear their children? Should we be bothered by enormous "genetic families" in which dozens of half-siblings have been spawned in absentia by the same anonymous sperm donor? Is it ethical to genetically modify your offspring in the embryonic stage?
In quiet ways, our reproductive habits are already being transformed by a wave of technological breakthroughs, but we aren't debating the ethical ramifications all that much. It feels as though the "familiar" social controversies have left us too exhausted for a whole fresh round of fights. That's a problem. Realistically, widespread public (and perhaps political) attention is the only thing that might stymie the relentless pressure of prevailing market forces. Does anyone think it's a good idea to entrust such important questions to the whims of the wealthy? Watch a few seasons of Black Mirror, and consider that some of these dystopian scenarios really aren't all that far-fetched. To secure a more just and humane future, we need to be thinking right now about some fundamental issues: the rights of children, the value of family, the obligations that living generations have to those who come after us.
As a proponent of organic-sex living, I myself enjoy the benefits of a cohesive reproductive script, which strikes many people as brutal and bizarre. I can understand that, but I can also see that young adults are struggling with basic questions about sex, reproduction, commitment, and family. For them, sexual morals don't all revolve around abortion, and familiar memes about "right to life" and "right to choose" may not provide sufficient guidance. For today's babies and toddlers, abortion may never be a significant concern at all. We parents need to prepare ourselves for a whole different kind of sex talk.
As incredible as it currently seems, the abortion age will eventually end. That day may even be fairly close at hand. What shall we fight about next?