Changes in the culture often precede and even compel changes in the law. Amongst the younger generations of Americans today, the cultural moment for the fight against abortion has come again.
For decades, the warring camps in America's long battle over abortion have appeared to be locked in a stalemate. Roe v. Wade established the legality of abortion on demand in 1973, and the last abortion-related case to reach the Supreme Court (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) came in 1992. Those who favor abortion "rights" have occupied the center of the battleground while the pro-life ranks have fought around the margins in skirmishes over waiting-periods, consent laws, born-alive protections, and gruesome but rare procedures like partial-birth abortion.
"Those who favor abortion "rights" have occupied the center of the battleground while the pro-life ranks have fought around the margins in skirmishes over waiting-periods, consent laws, born-alive protections, and gruesome but rare procedures like partial-birth abortion."
It has seemed impossible that Roe should be overturned. The political and cultural forces marshaled on the side of abortion "rights" have long seemed insurmountable. Surveys throughout the 1980s and 1990s consistently showed a mainstream national media staunchly in support of Roe. A 1995 survey of media elite found that 97 percent agreed (84 percent strongly) that "it is a woman's right to decide whether or not to have an abortion."
Given what we know of more recent media voting patterns, it's unlikely this has changed substantially. The entertainment and academic establishments, with all their cultural influence over young people, are also staunchly pro-choice. And of course the Democratic Party, funded and fortified by a broad network of special-interest groups, is so irrevocably committed to legalized abortion that it nominated the most pro-choice President in American history, refused in its party platform to endorse the goal of making abortions "rare," and recently would have driven the government into shutdown rather than take federal funding away from Planned Parenthood, which performs roughly a quarter of the abortions in America.
And yet, against all odds, Americans are becoming more pro-life. In 1995, when the Gallup organization first began asking Americans how they identified themselves, 56 percent called themselves pro-choice and only 33 percent pro-life. In the past decade and a half, those numbers have dramatically reversed. In May of 2009, for the first time in the history of the poll, more Americans (51 percent) identified as pro-life than pro-choice (42 percent). Some suggested it was an anomaly, so Gallup asked the same question two months later and found a 47 to 46 percent division in favor of pro-lifers. It remained the case that more Americans identified as pro-life (47 percent to 45 percent) in May 2010.
"The World War II generation was generally uncomfortable with abortion, but their children, the Baby Boomers, were far more pro-choice. At one time it was assumed that Americans would grow, inexorably, more and more comfortable with abortion—yet it hasn't worked out that way."
On one level, the reasons for this change are demographic. The World War II generation was generally uncomfortable with abortion, but their children, the Baby Boomers, were far more pro-choice. At one time it was assumed that Americans would grow, inexorably, more and more comfortable with abortion—yet it hasn't worked out that way. While those over 65 are still strongly opposed to abortion (over 6 in 10 declare it "morally wrong," according to a Marist survey in 2010), Baby Boomers' views have softened. Actually, 51 percent of boomers view abortion as wrong. Fifty-eight percent of Millennials (aged 18-29) and 60 percent of Generation Xers (30-44) say that abortion is morally wrong. When the rise of pro-life generations is added to the influx of Catholic immigrants, the great majority of whom are conservative on social matters, the stage is set for a second great awakening of the pro-life movement in America.
Why are younger Americans more pro-life today? The crusading feminism that caught up so many Boomers has run out of momentum. Yet there are two other reasons: technology and the truth.
In 1973, Justice Harry Blackmun appealed to ignorance to justify the decision in Roe. At "this point in the development of man's knowledge," he wrote, we can "not resolve the difficult question of when life begins." If it could be determined that the fetus is a living human person, he said, then the case "collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment."
Morally, this is an atrocious argument. We cannot determine conclusively whether or not abortion kills a human being—so we should allowit? Should we not go to extraordinary lengths to avoid what might take an innocent human life? It's also a tough argument to justify genetically and biologically, since in 1973 we already knew enough about conception and fetal development to conclude that the "fetus" is certainly alive, certainly human, and quite probably a "person" in every morally meaningful sense. Convenient though it is to believe otherwise, there is no magical transformation that occurs in between the womb and the world outside that suddenly confers "personhood" upon the child.
"Yet ignorance on "the difficult question of when life begins" is an even tougher sell now... It's all but impossible to watch an ultrasound video of an abortion and not concede that it takes a life, and the more honest supporters of abortion "rights" will admit as much. "
Yet ignorance on "the difficult question of when life begins" is an even tougher sell now. Today's younger generations have grown up with breathtaking images and videos of babies developing and maneuvering within the womb, media that are spread around the world and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It's all but impossible to watch an ultrasound video of an abortion and not concede that it takes a life, and the more honest supporters of abortion "rights" will admit as much. I'll return to the logic of the pro-life argument in the next installment in this series, but the point for now is that medical research has provided us with a clearer understanding of fetal development and just how early the heart begins to beat (18 days from conception) and brain waves can be detected (6 weeks). Seven weeks from conception, the "fetal tissue" is sucking its thumb.
The new pro-life activists also use technology to record conversations with abortion hotlines, to videotape visits to abortion offices, and to show the moral corruption that follows when the sacredness of life is denied. Then they employ the power of the internet, new media, and social networking to spread the word. Although their methods are certainly open to critical assessment, ask yourself: Don't you wish that Live Action had sent a hidden camera into Kermit Gosnell's baby charnel house years ago?
What characterizes the imaging, video, and communications technologies that are turning the tide in the abortion debate is that they merely capture and disseminate the truth. Pro-abortion rhetoric is crashing against the shoals of reality. The womb is no longer a black box. The only way to countenance abortion is to shut our eyes to the very realmiracle of life inside the womb. The more that open minds are exposed to the truth, the more they are prepared to defend life.
Two videos nicely capture the abortion battle amongst young people today. In the first, which shows demonstrations in support of Planned Parenthood, a young woman explains that abortion does not concern a baby, since "a baby is a fetus that has been born." (The magical transformation theory again.) Another young woman is perfectly willing to speak of aborting a baby, but "a baby's going to get in the way of the job I need to get." The schizophrenia of the pro-choice position, its callousness, its willful disregard for the interest of the child, is becoming more obvious everyday.
"Now a new culture is emerging as more pro-life generations rise up to claim a greater share of influence. As Alveda King, whose uncle Martin knew a bit about popular movements, observes,... "When you see the young people come on board, then you know that victory is on the way.""
The second video shows the growing pro-life movement amongst college students. Of course, both videos come from pro-life sources, and the editing is strategic—yet the difference in atmospherics is true to my experience. Pro-choice demonstrations are fueled in large measure by hatred for pro-lifers, especially conservative Christians. "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries," the young people chant. Much of the rhetoric has the militant superficiality and recycled rebelliousness of an angry 1970s feminism. The pro-life demonstrations are more hopeful and idealistic, focused not on condemning a caricatured image of the opponent, but on saving innocent human life. As David French, a Patheos columnist, tells the college students, "You are a defender of the defenseless. You want the unwanted. This is who you are. This is what you do." This is much more appealing than "Abortion on demand and without apology."
The young pro-lifers today believe they can change the culture, to change the law, to change the world. When Roewas passed in 1973, it did not follow a clear constitutional imperative so much as it expressed the moral and spiritual culture emerging from the 1960s. Now a new culture is emerging as more pro-life generations rise up to claim a greater share of influence. As Alveda King, whose uncle Martin knew a bit about popular movements, observes in the second video, "When you see the young people come on board, then you know that victory is on the way."
In the next part of this series, I will discuss the way forward. But there is a way forward. The culture of life in America is in renaissance, and the children of that renaissance are turning the tide.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter. Republished with permission.