Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In A. S. Byatt’s recent novel, Possessionthe main character notes that the one unchallenged dogma of his generation is the Freudian belief that sex is the mainspring of human behavior. One need not be a Freudian, however, to observe that attitudes toward sex, and especially variant understandings of the relationship of sex and the social order, mark out one of the important boundary lines of our political and cultural landscape.

On one side of the divide are those who consider sex the most private and amoral of all human activities. Anything goes, so long as the idol consent reigns supreme. These same “privatizers” of sex also insist that the display of pornography is protected by the First Amendment. This seems paradoxical, but it is not. Privatizers of sex insist on their right to display sexual acts in public precisely because they believe that sex has no serious social effects. On the other side are those who recognize that sexuality is entwined in a web of social relations. Society therefore cannot remain indifferent to attacks on monogamy and sexual purity or to encouragement of sexual libertinism. From this perspective, pornography is seen as a threat to social order because it encourages immoral sexual conduct. Sex, in short, has consequences, and public consequences at that.

One of the most public consequences of sex is children. That the pleasures of sex threaten to produce offspring has always been the main stumbling block for privatizers of sex. If, however, the threat of conception can be eliminated, then the dream of consequence-free sex comes closer to realization, and, if threat of conception can be eliminated privately, the privatization of sex is complete. Thus, differing visions of the relationship of sex and society form one of the deep structures of the abortion debate.

This context helps to explain the euphoria that greeted RU-486, the much-publicized French abortion pill. Molly Yard positively gushes that the drug might be “the most significant medical advance in human history and the symbol of a brighter future for women everywhere.” Paul Ehrlich piously murmurs that RU-486 is what “women everywhere have been hoping and praying for.” The ever-humble inventor of the drug, Etienne-Emile Baulieu, has called it the “most important invention of the twentieth century” and commented on the drug’s “mythic status.”

According to The Quick and the Dead (Crossway), a recent book by George Grant, former Vice President of Coral Ridge Ministries, mythos is about all that RU-486 has in its favor. RU-486 is an icon for the privatizers of sex. One of the few undisputed claims is that the drug is an abortifacient, not a contraceptive. Unlike contraceptives, which prevent the union of a sperm with an egg, RU-486 prevents a fertilized egg’s implantation in the uterine wall, and, when combined with prostaglandin, strips the uterus, induces labor, and expels the fertilized egg.

In nearly every other respect, however, RU-486 is controversial. Contrary to its promoters, the drug’s safety is highly questionable. Grant cites a British study of 588 women who received the drug:

Five of the women bled so much that they required transfusions. One hundred sixty-six of them needed narcotics to ease the pain. Some one hundred and fifty vomited, and another seventy-three suffered diarrhea. Thirty-five failed to abort and had to undergo a follow-up surgical procedure. And together they averaged more than twenty days of heavy bleeding afterwards.

As to its effectiveness, Grant makes this comparison: “One out of every twenty RU-486 abortions fails—whereas only one in two hundred surgical suction procedures need to be repeated.” RU-486 does not even deliver on its promise of privatizing abortion. Assuming the drug works as it should, the full RU-486 treatment takes three weeks and includes several clinic visits. If there are complications, the woman may have to endure a surgical abortion at the end of weeks of drug-induced pain, vomiting, and bleeding.

The promoters of RU-486 suggest that the drug is a social as well as a medical panacea. If it becomes legal, the whole abortion struggle will simply evaporate. Women will have abortions in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. This line of argument not only assumes that the drug is effective, but also misses the most important question in the abortion conflict. Ultimately, the question is not whether RU-486 or similar drugs are safe and effective for the women who use them. The question is whether it is right to destroy innocent human lives.

For that reason, opponents of abortion must be ready to continue the struggle, no matter how efficient and privatized abortion becomes. Efficiency in killing, after all, is no virtue.

Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama, and a regular contributor to First Things .