Thursday, April 15, 2010

Abortion: An Historico-Cultural Explanation

Real life keeps getting in the way, but I've finally been able to set aside time for a post explaining why abortion has come to be accepted, even favored, by a large chunk of the American populace.

The first thing which needs to be said, before going any further, is that all but a few Americans (this is said unscientifically but with an appreciation for the basic decency of people) agree that abortions are sad events, events that need to be rare and become rarer still in the future. Yes, you'll find some people for whom "abortions of convenience" are perfectly acceptable, but that's not a mainstream position, and it's not what's going to be addressed in this essay.

The second thing which needs to be said - this will be a constant theme of the blog for those just joining the discussion - is that abortion (like other policy positions or viewpoints) will not be justified or defended.

The purpose of this blog is merely to explain how a given set of viewpoints came to exist, for it is only in understanding the evolution of perspectives that one can improve or correct them. No honest debate can take place unless there is at least some mutual awareness of the pillars being used by competing sides. Every contentious issue in American life (or in any other society, for that matter) demands such an historico-cultural analysis.

So it will be with abortion in the next several hundred words.

As a white male and as a Catholic Christian, I immediately realize that I'm not in the best position to speak to the development of American women's views on abortion, so I'll speak cautiously on this issue and try not to overstep my bounds. I'll also forthrightly declare that I will not mention every single cultural or historical nuance that has shaped this issue in the United States.

On a very simple and general level, a fervent belief in the right to have an abortion stems from at least a couple of factors. (Female readers and pro-choice readers - we'll save debates about terminology for later as well - are invited to post additional thoughts and context in the comments section to enhance a public debate.)

One factor is easy to identify but hard to limit to a particular window of time: The oppression and subjugation of women throughout history. Women were viewed as property for quite some time, and the development of marriage as an appreciably mutual love-based covenant is not all that old within the larger sweep and scope of human history. In some pockets of the world today, women are still treated as property, as commodities to be sold; much of this is enshrined in religious practices, with India and Sharia Law-governed pockets of the Islamic world. Polygamous Mormon sects treat women in a way few of us should be comfortable with, and - outside the realm of religion itself - women are still consistently objectified by Western popular culture. One could list many other examples of the dehumanization and oppression of women, but that would divert us from the focal point of this essay. The bottom line is that the oppression of women has been a constant in human existence.

Therefore, when Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and other mid-20th-century feminists generated momentum for the movement they kick-started, an understandable torrent of excitement, optimism and hope began to emerge.

It shouldn't be too hard to understand when one thinks about it in a larger context.

World War II had just ended. Domestic life re-entered the focus of American women (and women in Europe as well). Moreover, there was an eagerness to return to the home front and step away from the battlefields of Europe and Japan. Women in the West also wanted to peel themselves away from the unimaginable tensions they felt - as wives, girlfriends and mothers - while the men in their lives took up arms against Hitler and Mussolini.

The years during which the American baby boom took place were years in which men and women separated by war stepped into a new social context. I can't speak for Europeans here, but American life acquired pronounced new cultural and commercial dimensions from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, when the United States economy existed at its zenith. The development of the interstate highway system, the construction of suburban housing units such as Levittown (throughout the Northeast), and a boom in post-war manufacturing created a world that was manifestly different from the pre-war environment so many American men and boys inhabited until December 7, 1941.

Americans were discovering the life-altering medium of television (my grandparents got their first television in 1947, and were the third household on their block in Chicago to get a TV). Women and men were catching up with each other after several years of lost time. The G.I. Bill was transforming the nature of America's workforce for the next few generations. Rapid change defined the American situation in the late 40s and for much of the 1950s. In that kind of context, it is always difficult for human beings in large communities to feel satisfied with their standing and - even more importantly - a given set of assumptions that had carried them for so long.

[Again, not a justification or a defense, but merely an explanation for why things unfolded the way they did.]

And then, if you thought the 1950s brought forth a lot of change, then came the 1960s, when the doors got blown off.

The pill.

The Civil Rights Movement.

The Second Vatican Council (a moment understood by Catholics, but underappreciated by non-Catholic Americans who don't realize the extent to which intra-Catholic transformations reshaped American polity in the past 50 years).

The Vietnam War.

The resistance to the Vietnam War.

The sex-drugs-rock-n-roll scene of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock.

The free love movement.

These events and social forces carried overwhelming weight and unavoidably caused Americans to re-assess and re-calibrate how they lived and what they thought. Many Americans didn't feel the full force of these earth-shaking changes, and some didn't change their views all that much, but the point is that many U.S. citizens did, with women rethinking their basic approach to life, love, career, sexuality, divorce, family, and other considerations.

Once more, the matter of right or wrong is not what's at issue here. The matter at hand is this: how did a large number of American women come to feel that a right to an abortion was something that needed to be cherished and/or defended?

Old views of sexuality and relationships were questioned.

Old views of work, family and culture received fresh scrutiny and examination, perhaps for the first time in many American households once governed by ironclad rules and principles which endured through the 19th century and well into the 20th century as well.

The integrity of the United States government - thanks to the Gulf of Tonkin debacle in 1964 - caused many Americans to question authority figures, which most certainly included those people we call PARENTS. Again, right or wrong is not the issue; HOW THINGS CAME TO BE is the topic being discussed. (If you're tired of the repetition, I understand; I just want to emphasize it in these initial essays.)

The integrity of the Catholic Church was newly assessed back in the sixties as a result of Vatican II. Lay Catholics who, in prior decades, obeyed everything a parish priest or diocesan bishop said without question - at a time when the Mass was said in Latin, a dead language - now took a fresh look at their church and pondered the possibilities of lay leadership. Catholics attained new levels of affluence and post-secondary education, making them question various edicts and pronouncements levied by an institutional church that prides itself on thinking in terms of centuries, not days.

Against this kind of backdrop, new perspectives were gained, old perspectives were - if not lost - certainly forgotten. Abortions - conducted in the horror and crudeness of back alleys with primitive materials - were felt by many to be a necessary procedure which demanded advanced medical attention. With American culture radically re-defining matters of sexuality, and the pill then hastening a tectonic shift in bedrooms and college campuses throughout the country, the matter of abortion came to be seen in a very different light.

One more Catholic element merits mention here: The places where Catholicism flourished in America were the big cities of the Northeast and the Midwest, plus Los Angeles. Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago all house American cardinals, along with L.A. and also Detroit. These are the metropolitan areas deemed by the institutional Catholic Church as meriting the centrality and primacy of Cardinal archbishops (as opposed to regular bishops who don't receive elevated cardinalatial status).

When attitudes among American Catholics shifted markedly in the 1960s and the reforms which accompanied that time period, many college-educated urbanite women began a slow but steady process of rethinking their religious identity. For many of these women (my mom grew up in Chicago in the 1950s), the Catholic Church is today a sign of disgrace and shame. The Catholic faith might still be lived out by these women and their daughters, but a confidence in the integrity of the institution has been wiped away. More specifically, Catholic women (and their even-more-skeptical daughters, some of whom don't go to Mass these days) are fully convinced that old white men in positions of ecclesial power have nothing (healthy or positive) to say to them about sexual conduct and moral behavior in the bedroom. Deteriorating attitudes among Catholic women toward Catholic leaders - in archbishop chairs here in the states, but also in Rome - cannot be underestimated as a main source of shifting attitudes toward abortion.

Does life begin at conception? That's a mighty fine question which can be debated in the comments section. This essay, though, was simply meant to show how views of abortion developed, established and became further entrenched in the minds of a good many American women over the past 40-65 years or so.

There is a time for dialogue about the science and ethics of abortion. The conversation that must first take place, however, is a dialogue about how our views of abortion ever came to exist at all.


  1. I appreciate the historical context and how it might relate to a Catholic woman who is now in her 60s. But what about a 20-something woman with none of this cultural baggage?

    Also, none of the historical context can explain away the moral depravity of the pro-abortion position.

  2. A question in search of a clarification, John:

    When you refer to a 20-something woman, do you have any other demographic traits in mind (Catholic, agnostic, urban, rural, African-American, etc.)?

    The daughters of fallen-away American Catholic women (at least a good portion of them; exactly how many would be up for debate) live with the cultural baggage to the extent that their views of church and doctrine were influenced by their mothers.

    As for your second comment, I simply hope - for the purposes of this (limited, confined) discussion - that you see how a lot of women in the 1950s and 1960s attached an urgency to the issue (from a pro-abortion perspective, that is...) and then added an element of necessity to the issue by viewing abortions as medical procedures which demanded inclusion.

    The whirlwind of confusion surrounding sexuality and sources of authority - those two major forces which roiled American society in the 1960s - reshaped a lot of attitudes. Was this for the better or not? We have our opinions, and I'm partial to yours on the precise issue of abortion. I'm just wanting conservatives and pro-lifers to understand why and how a pro-abortion view took root. An opposing view needs to be understood in full for it to be effectively addressed in public debate and in a subsequent attempt to achieve meaningful social change... change which will hopefully eliminate abortions and render them completely unnecessary in the future.

  3. Nikki Jewell4/16/10, 12:10 AM

    It's kind of hard for to me to comment on abortion in America as it is such a defining issue there, and I don't feel it is quite the same in the UK.

    I think many of the same changes were happening in Europe, Matt, but it's important to remember that much of Europe was in ruins after the Second World War, and affluence took a big longer to arrive. I've wondered if one of the reasons for the NHS in the UK came about because of the poor general health exacerbated by years of rationing and people returning from the war in poor health? It was desperately needed. And I am not sure you can take a fairly rigid class system and the effects of the Depression out of that history either, as both of these likely affected the general health of the nation.

    The confusion surrounding sexuality & authority existed here, too.

    Anyway...digressing a little, but it is vaguely relevant.

    I think, there must be very few people who are pro-abortion. Pro a "right" to an abortion under some circumstances, yes. Polls show that most people in the UK would agree that women should have some kind of right of access to an abortion, but this, I'm sure, is hemmed about with restrictions such as in cases of mental or physical injury to the mother, and with a limit of 24-20 weeks, or much lower. That limit reflects - or tries to reflect - the age at which a child is generally capable of being born alive.

    Nearly 90% of abortions in Britain are under the 12-week mark.

    In terms of Parliament here, I think that issues around abortion are probably issues of conscience. But I feel that the left are likelier to be pro right of access - less likely to be religious, more likely to listen to feminist arguments about a woman's control over her body and try to balance that with traditional morality and society's needs, more likely to consider factors such as what effects illegal "back street" abortions will have - and they would happen.

    I do not find the absolute terms of good vs evil to be very helpful generally.

    I personally do not approve of abortion except in need and would much rather that there were none. Better education, better access to contraception (it is not enough that contraception carries no prescription charge and can be given out free from Family Planning Clinics here), more abstinence. If a baby does not fit with your plans, do not get pregnant.

    A society that is better able to commit to and care for children as they should be cared for - a little less selfishness and more responsibility for one's own actions would be nice. Any idea - although I think this is exaggerated sometimes - that abortion is a proper method of contraception should be firmly scotched, in terms of society's attitudes.

    However, I am not sure that abortion can ever be eliminated entirely. There will still be cases of need. And I personally would want women to have the right of meaningful (to me, that means NHS) access to safe abortions, within restrictions - rather than be so desperate that they will attempt risky old wives' tale methods, etc.

  4. To answer your question, Matt, no other demographic traits in mind. Which, of course, is an extremely unhelpful answer. But I fail to see why it would matter. I also fail to see how 1960s attitudes should carry forward to today. Conservatives are forever criticized for wanting to bring the nation back to the 1950s. But why do liberals want to bring the nation back to the 1960s and 1970s? Our medical knowledge is so much more advanced than it was then. Read the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court opinion. You will undoubtedly conclude that the medical knowledge at the time was rudimentary and irrelevant to 2010. It is impossible to escape the obvious conclusion that anybody that cannot see that an unborn child is a life is lying to themselves or woefully ignorant. If this was not obvious to the 1960s radicals, it is plainly obvious to anybody and everybody in 2010. Old views should be reevaluated as new technology and knowledge sheds light on new facts, right? Yet the pro-abortion crowd seems to want to stop time in 1973.

  5. John,

    If conservatives let go of the 50s and liberals let go of the 60s, that would be a welcome pair of developments.

    And you're right that there SHOULD NOT be carryover from one generation to another, but regrettably, there is. Dialogue is the antidote to that; we need frank cross-boundary conversations to encourage fresh re-examination of various issues in light of current realities.