We’re asked today to reflect on the future of the pro-life movement in an increasingly secular age. A few years ago, I wrote a book called How the West Really Lost God, about the phenomenon called “secularization” and the various hypotheses about its roots. The book advanced the theory that, contrary to conventional accounts, the weakening of Christianity is due above all to the fact of the sexual revolution, and its catastrophic impact on the essential transmission belt for religion itself: the family.
To sort through the empirical evidence, as happened in the course of my writing the book, is to find many reasons for concern over secularization—including, for starters, the unhappy fact that the rise of “nones” will reduce charitable donations to good causes. As social scientist Arthur Brooks has documented, religious people give far more to all manner of do-gooding than do secular people. There’s also the steady rise in ideologically driven attacks, by legal and other means, on Christian schools, colleges, clubs, and charities, including and especially crisis pregnancy centers. And that’s just the beginning of the obstacles to come, as more and more Western individuals opt out of religious literacy and practice.
Yet for all that, there’s a light on the horizon that pulses brighter with every passing year. One area we shouldn’t worry about when we worry about secularization is this: the fate of the pro-life movement itself. And that is so for three reasons.
First, the logic of Roe is so quintessentially unnatural that human reason, and the human heart, will continue to overrule it, both inside the churchgoing flock and out. Thanks to Roe, the United States has one of the most extreme abortion regimes on earth. And that is Roe’s ineradicable weakness. Abortion on demand—abortion at any time, for any reason—unleashes too many toxic results, which too many people know intuitively to be wrong.
It permits gender-cide: Around the world, millions of unborn girls are killed because they are girls. It permits, indeed licenses, prejudice against people with Down Syndrome, clubfoot, cleft palate, and other disabilities. Brown eyes could be next, or blue; there’s no reason in the theory of abortion-on-demand why not. Roe empowers the strong and predatory—men of the sort unmasked in the continuing #MeToo scandals—and crushes the small and weak.
Again, the heart itself knows, however inarticulately, that this record is alien to nature; and rebellion comes in sometimes unlikely guises. Rap superstar Eminem, with singer Ed Sheeran, just released a track called “River,” in which a man who calls himself a liar and a cheat expresses furious remorse over an affair and an abortion. It uses the words, “baby” and “unborn child.” This is only the latest example of a subterranean theme found elsewhere in popular culture: namely, tacit rejection of the idea that abortion is only about “my body.”
This isn’t to say that rappers will be leading the next March for Life, though it will be a banner day if and when any do. It is to say that Eminem, who chooses words with care, knows better than to use ugly, obfuscating phrases like “reproductive byproducts,” when truer references to “babies” apply; and that his fans will understand such usage, too. The point is that the “blob of tissues” theology is unsustainable, and that plenty of people can grasp as much, whether or not they know what a tabernacle is.
The second reason for optimism resonates with many younger people, especially. We live in a time of increasing moral awareness about animal life, and its preciousness, and its testimony to the magnificence of creation. To observe this isn’t to imply moral equivalence, but to emphasize that more and more people, religious and secular, now realize that our fellow creatures on earth should not be treated as things, or as mere blobs of tissue, either.
Think of the outrage a few years back when Cecil the lion was killed for sport. Think of how elephants are now understood to be stupendous creatures made for purposes beyond human entertainment. Think of how many people, in light of evolving scientific evidence, have become mindful eaters, more careful shoppers, donors to the cause of animal rescue, or even vegetarians and vegans, all out of newfound respect for animal life.
Many among us—inside the walls of faith, and out—applaud this rising moral consciousness. The logic of concern for animal welfare and the logic of concern for human animal welfare operate on parallel tracks. There’s a grand alliance just waiting to be born between people who are pro-animal and people who are pro-life—especially as science documents with increasing accuracy just how intricate and sublime are the workings of all animals. That includes the human animal at every stage of development, beginning in utero.
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argues against “species-ism,” his term for the way human beings unfairly (as he sees it) put ourselves first. Yet by that same token, when we regard the smallest humans as inferior to other animals, we are being “species-ist” in reverse. Consistency on this score is one more logical migraine for defenders of Roe. No one would support the abortion of giraffes or elephants. No one should support the abortion of humans, either.
The third reason for optimism has been there all along, and has only grown more apparent with every March for Life—including last week’s.
It is frequently remarked that the face of the pro-life movement is a youthful one, and that the March crackles with adolescent and child energy like no other demonstration of our day. This is true, of course, and it’s in part a function of demographics: Over time, many people who didn’t want children either contracepted or aborted theirs away; while simultaneously, others who turned their face toward life went on to have the families whose representatives can be seen singing and dancing and throwing Frisbees around the Mall every January.
There’s another point about the connection between youthfulness and abortion that also demands attention. To attend rallies by the other side is to see the mirror opposite of youth and exuberance. There is no joy in the pro-choice marchers. There is grim determination, steely drive, and quasi-religious fervor—but no adolescent energy, and no mirth. If one were to attend both a pro-life and a pro-choice rally without knowing what either assembly was for, one would still know instinctively which to join.
And that contrast, finally, may spell the end of abortion on demand, just as decisively as any future Supreme Court. In the matter of the heart, and leaving aside the Constitution, there has always been something untoward about the spectacle of people nearing the other end of the time spectrum telling boisterous youth that babies are bad.
Related inversion in the natural order is a theme in Greek tragedy via Euripides’s play The Bacchae. Like the violent women in that tragedy, the position of today’s elders of “choice” is unnatural. That truth, too, is something even an un-churched child can spy.
In the end, logical dots overruling Roe connect all over the place outside of organized religion: between the scientific truth about unborn life, and the consequent obsolescence of the blob-of-cells theory; between rising solicitude for animal life, and enduring concern for human animal life; between the truth about the joy of existence, especially youthful existence, versus the sad desire to see less of it.
All of these are lines that can be drawn without setting foot in a house of God—which is why they are, more and more. None of which is to underestimate the philosophical and theological bedrock of the Church. Two thousand years of Christian teaching do indeed explain all the reasons why life is good, and why killing is wrong. But that these truths exist can be determined by reason, including youthful reason, alone.
And this verity, like life itself, is a good thing.
Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. This essay is adapted from remarks delivered at the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life at Georgetown University on January 20, 2018.