Part of Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Here’s what they told us.
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books.
The list of those who have had few or no legal rights throughout history is staggering: women, children, orphans, widows, Jews, gays and lesbians, slaves, former slaves, descendants of slaves, those with leprosy, undocumented immigrants — to name a few.
Nothing marks the progress of any society more than the expansion of human rights to those who formerly lacked them. I believe that if such progress is to continue, prenatal human beings will be included in this group, and we will consider elective abortion primitive and cruel in the future.
The eradication of abortion may be difficult to imagine. But consider how difficult it would have been for our grandparents to foresee a culture in which nearly one in four women has an abortion by age 45. Certainly, some factors leading to this situation reflect real and substantial progress for women: greater equality, more work options, improved understanding of sexuality, and increased moral agency. But rights for women that come at the expense of unborn children aren’t true liberation; they merely, as one writer put it, enable the “redistribution of oppression.”
Before the first trimester is over (when the vast majority of abortions are performed), a tiny fetus the size of a fig kicks her feet, yawns, sucks her thumb, and demonstrates her left- or right-handedness. Her heartbeat and brain waves are detectable just a few weeks after conception. Clearly, such beings are human — and all human rights begin with the right to life. The fact that many abortion rights supporters wish abortion to be “rare” is an implicit acknowledgment of these undeniable, if inconvenient, truths.
So what will it take to disentangle the sexual, familial, economic, and political threads of legal elective abortion that have become so tightly woven into our cultural fabric? I think we are beginning to see that unraveling now.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that abortion hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade: 11.8 per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 1980s that approached 30 per 1,000 women. It’s unclear whether this decrease is owing to increased use of contraceptives; delayed sexual activity among young people; the declining number of doctors willing to participate in abortions; a growing inability to deny — thanks to ultrasound technology, prenatal surgical interventions, and extravagant gender reveal parties — the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb; or a combination of all these factors.
Whatever the cause, however, abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable. Recent attempts in several states to expand access to late-term abortions in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe not only violate the view of the majority (who support greater restrictions after the first trimester) but will be seen by future generations as a last, desperate show of stubbornness in the face of human progress.
Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.
Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.
When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice and why we harmed so many women to do so.