Could the intensity of America’s abortion debate be like the last burst of light from a dying star? Thanks to social trends, especially those arising from technology and transhumanism, our familiar forms of argument are becoming obsolete.
The New York Times recently ran a series of opinion pieces for and against abortion, framing the debate in familiar terms. The pro-life movement is increasingly young, female, and spunky—so it does not appear to be on its way out. Statistics indicate that Americans, especially younger Americans, favor some restrictions on abortion, and a record number of millennials think abortion should be illegal altogether. Meanwhile, abortion-rights advocates have turned up their rhetoric, seeking to celebrate or normalize abortion. Presenting abortion stories as a badge of honor is increasingly popular. Teen Vogue has spent the better part of a year aggressively marketing abortion to pre-pubescent girls.
Structured in this way, this debate will have no winner and no loser. Abortion and the arguments surrounding it will slowly become antiquated. I believe this for three reasons.
Abortion rates are declining—as are rates of conception. In 2016, birth rates in the United States hit an all-time low: 59.6 births per 1,000 women. Both these trends are due in part to the effectiveness of long-term contraception. Abortion providers have hitched their wagons to universal access to low-cost contraception; ironically, this choice is hurting their business. It turns out pregnancy is a pre-condition for abortion, and Western Europe and North America are no longer fertile markets. This likely accounts for Planned Parenthood’s aggressive efforts to relax abortion restrictions abroad, in Africa and South America.
The fewer abortions and fewer pregnancies we have, the less salient the abortion issue will become. The pro-life movement has done little to combat the poverty of imagination that makes children into commodities to be discarded or fetishized. This singularity of vision means that we have failed to make a positive case for children as a social good, a sign of a society that is vibrant and alive, a source of joy, and a sign of hope. Addressing this poverty is a complex intellectual task, one that requires articulating the humanness of the human, and presenting children and childrearing as fundamental to the common good. It requires making a case for having children. This task is more difficult, and for a long time it seemed less urgent, than arguing against violent death and Roe v. Wade. But today we see the consequences of not adequately attending to it.
Finally, technological advances are enabling transhumanist ideologies and eroding our understanding the humanness of the human.
Transhumanism holds that, with the aid of technology, human beings can and should evolve beyond our current physical and mental limitations. Transhumanists point to the history of human manipulation of the environment, of medicine, and of bodily ornamentation to argue that transhumanism is merely one step on the road of progress. Absent a persuasive and compelling vision of human nature and human dignity (in other words, of the humanness of the human), transhumanism exerts enormous pressure on the social imagination. In less than a decade, scientists have perfected human cloning and gene editing. They have created the first inter-species entity—a human-pig chimera—and developed a functional artificial womb. Such technologies hold tremendous possibilities, but it would be naïve to imagine that they don’t pose fundamental challenges to our ideas of what it means to be human.
These scientific and technological innovations should spark lively debate and fresh articulations of what it means to be human and what role technology should have in shaping culture. Yet the sacred “neutrality” of science shields technology from serious critique. In a study released earlier this year, scientists from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia detailed artificial womb technology, which has the possibility of revolutionizing care for pre-maturely born infants. This study seems to have been met with general indifference.
What public conversation did take place occurred within a legal-moralistic framework, a framework that fails to persuade when we lack a vision of what it means to be human. Pro-choice and pro-life advocates both focused on the same reality: the visibility of developing life. Pro-choice advocates were predictably concerned that the advent of artificial womb technology will have the “adverse” effect of humanizing the unborn. Pro-life advocates, on the other hand, expressed cautious enthusiasm that artificial wombs might humanize the unborn.
Scientists and researchers tell everyone not to worry. The lead researcher on artificial womb technology insists that scientists will never push the limits of viability to the point where women’s bodies are functionally replaced by technology, and human gestation becomes mechanized. “When you do that,” he says, “you open a whole new can of worms.” But this assurance rings hollow in an age governed by an ethos of “what we can do, we may do.” Thus, when legitimate ethical concerns are met with dismissals like “That’s a pipe dream at this point,” one ought to beware the qualifier, “at this point.” The scientific community has shown very little ability to regulate itself.
Technological possibility will increasingly eclipse the very terms of our debate over abortion, and I suspect that “abortion politics” as we know it is on its way to being a relic of the past—a particularly brutal way we eliminated human life back when humans used to have children.
Jessica Keating is director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.