ARE THE culture wars over? Media coverage of America’s red-blue political divide would seem to indicate an emphatic no. But poll numbers tell a different story. It can be easy to forget that just a few decades ago, social trends that now seem unremarkable — women working outside the home, children enrolled in daycare, gays and lesbians living openly and holding public office — were matters of major public debate. Arguments of more recent vintage appear to be winding down, too. Virtually all polls now agree that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. Even more support the right of gays and lesbians to adopt children. Sixty percent of Americans believe that human beings “evolved over time” — a 12-percentage-point jump from just a decade ago. A truce is even in sight in the war on Christmas; barely a majority of Americans now celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Even fewer (43 percent) object to nonreligious holiday greetings. The decisive factor in each of these fights? Time. Baby Boomers are the last generation that will ever oppose gay marriage. Nearly 70 percent of Americans under age 30 accept evolution. Millennials are almost half as likely as their grandparents to celebrate a religious Christmas.
One issue, however, appears stubbornly resistant to this inexorable social convergence. If the trend lines of American attitudes toward women’s rights, gay rights, science, and even “Happy Holidays” read like ever-rising graphs of acquiescence to change, the trend line for abortion stands out as a flat index of cultural division. The percentage of Americans who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances (28 percent), some circumstances (50 percent), or never (21 percent) is virtually unchanged from four decades ago, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. Roughly half of Americans call themselves “pro-life,” the other half “pro-choice.” Evangelical Christians, whose views on gay marriage are moderating, remain firmly opposed to abortion. Today, as I write, the US Senate finds itself unable to pass popular, bipartisan legislation protecting victims of human trafficking because of a feud over an obscure anti-abortion provision in the bill.
Actually, one thing has changed in the abortion debate, perhaps the most important thing: the number of abortions performed each year in America. That number — 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women in 2011 — has declined steadily since the late 1980s, and now is roughly the same as it was the year abortion was legalized. If trends continue, the incidence of abortion in the United States soon will be lower than it was the year Roe. v. Wade was decided.
Which raises a question. Why, if abortion itself is on the decline, has debate over the procedure remained so bitter and unresolved? Why this particular front in the culture wars? Why so much weaponry marshaled for a shrinking piece of ground?
Leaving aside for a moment reasons for the decline itself — which are sociologically complex and not yet fully understood — the answer to those larger cultural questions can be found in several recent books about a different but intimately related topic: religious politics. In Good Catholics, by Patricia Miller, The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, by Garry Wills, and God’s Own Party, by Daniel K. Williams, three writers with very different training offer roughly the same explanation for the origin and persistence of America’s protracted abortion debate. The explanation: a combustible admixture of religious faith, fear of women, and desire for power.
The three books are different in their aims and styles. Miller, a Washington, DC–based correspondent for the left-leaning religion news website Religion Dispatches, writes a workmanlike history of “Catholics for Choice,” a 42-year-old advocacy group dedicated, according to its website, to serving “as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.” Wills, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of more than a dozen books of religious and American history, ranges widely through the Catholic past to assert that the church has survived for two millennia not by resisting change but by embracing it — and hence, whatever change Pope Francis might usher in should be welcomed as a much-needed renewal of an institution dangerously ossified by decades of conservative management. Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia, offers what in my opinion is the most thorough, most accurate, and most ideologically neutral account of the rise of the religious right. Much scholarship and journalism on religious conservatism in America is marred by obvious bias and interpretive oversimplification. Williams tells a more complicated story of a large, diverse religious community seeking and ultimately finding its political voice at a time of immense social change in America.
Despite their widely divergent provenance, these three books, read together, provide a comprehensive and sometimes eye-opening account of a pivotal period in recent American social history. Miller and Wills have obvious ideological axes to grind against the Catholic Church, a bias that sometimes mars their narrative. Supplemented by Williams’s more neutral and comprehensively researched approach, the three books together illuminate a religious movement that is often misunderstood. The authors show how deep currents in American culture, especially the post-World War II weakening of religious institutions and the entry of women into the workforce, produced immense social stresses that found their outlet in clashes over sex-related issues such as abortion. The abortion debate, it turns out, has persisted in America not simply because Americans remain divided over the morality of the procedure — though ambivalence about the ending of potential human life is indisputably a factor — but because abortion has remained one of the last social issues still capable of channeling religious peoples’ fears about cultural and economic change. That is, the postwar economic changes that produced and then partly neutralized the myriad social revolutions of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have become such an integral part of American life that most of their effects are now far less likely to be misinterpreted as purely moral phenomena. Likewise, social changes that are primarily moral, without an economic substratum, such as acceptance of homosexuality, have been subsumed by Americans’ long-standing dislike of being told what to do in their personal lives.
Abortion is, and always has been, different. The moral issues surrounding the procedure are more complicated, and the economic factors harder to disentangle. There are questions of class and race, and of how best to structure families in a postindustrial economy (because most women who seek abortions are non-white, unmarried, and lack a college degree). Lacking clear-cut, yes-or-no points of debate, abortion has remained a high-stakes gray area that can be made to mean, and to stand for, many different things. The books considered in this essay help us to understand how abortion became such a resilient, protean avatar. Sadly, the writers offer at best only qualified hope that the bitterness surrounding the issue will abate any time soon.
Miller, Wills, and Williams all begin with the same, not widely understood stipulation: debate over abortion is not primarily a debate about sexuality. It is a fight for power. More specifically, for religious conservatives opposed to abortion, advocacy against the procedure has served as an enduring means of maintaining religious authority in a secularizing nation. Proceeding from this assumption, Miller begins her narrative not with the Roe. v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, but two decades earlier, with a different sex-related debate altogether, this one over contraception. It was that battle, waged beginning in the 1950s, that first alerted Catholic leaders to changes in American society that threatened religious institutions’ influence over matters of family life.
Those changes had little to do with sex. They were economic. As the nation gradually shifted from an industrial to a service-based economy, and as the post-World War II economic boom began to fade, women were drawn increasingly into the labor force, especially once corporations, having recovered from the Great Depression, began reasserting control over workers and wages. From 1949 to 1969, median family income in America doubled, from $26,573 to $52,989. After that, income mostly stagnated (growing by just one-fifth over the ensuing four decades, to $63,815 in 2013). Each year in the inflation-plagued 1970s, a single income became less and less able to guarantee a middle-class living. Some women worked outside the home because they wanted to. Others because they had to. Regardless of the reason, more and more of them worked. And so, more and more women required a measure of control over their reproductive lives. The advent of the birth control pill in 1960 did not usher in a new era of sexual liberty. It met an increasingly felt need in a capitalist economy rapidly and unsentimentally casting aside long-standing patterns of labor division in American households.
For religious authorities, economic change primarily took the form of congregants’ anguished moral questions about family planning. As Miller points out, not all of the authorities were unsympathetic to the needs of working women. A panel convened to advise Pope Paul VI on contraception in advance of his 1968 encyclical on human sexuality, Humanae Vitae, actually voted to lift the church’s ban on artificial contraception. The ban, the panel’s bishops stated, was not integral to church teachings and prior papal pronouncements about it were not infallible.
Here is where the fight for power comes in. Four conservative theologians on the panel, alarmed that centuries of church teaching were about to be contradicted, wrote a dissenting report reminding the Pope that “the Church cannot change her answer [on contraception] because […] the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ […] could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of its history.” Paul, realizing that papal authority itself was at stake, overruled his own advisory panel and upheld the ban. “Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” Humanae Vitae proclaimed.
Unfortunately for conservatives, the ban on contraception, born in fear of loss of authority, had the perverse effect of guaranteeing that very loss. Catholics ignored the ban from the moment it was proclaimed. Today, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women report using some form of artificial birth control. As former New York Times reporter Peter Steinfels observed in his 2003 book A People Adrift, even many priests tacitly ignored the ban. By the time the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, Catholic bishops faced an acute problem of credibility. Already, as Miller points out, greater acceptance of Catholics by mainstream American society had diminished the once-exclusive influence clergy wielded in largely segregated Catholic communities. Abortion came to be seen by bishops as a last redoubt in their fight to preserve institutional authority.
Hence the determination with which bishops — and at first it was mostly bishops, not grassroots faithful — moved to create a national movement against abortion. Miller documents in thoroughly researched detail the steps by which Catholic authorities created advocacy organizations, herded priests into line, and ratcheted up pressure on Catholic politicians. Miller calls this effort “The Bishop’s Lobby,” and she identifies it as one of the main drivers of conservative Catholic activism over the past half century.
It is at this point that Protestants join the story — though by their own distinct yet equally fear-tinged route. Williams, like Miller, begins his account of conservative Protestant political activism not with Roe v. Wade (as some commentators still erroneously do) but decades earlier, with evangelicals’ wide-ranging campaigns against sex education, pornography, and the outlawing of prayer in schools. For years after the Roe decision, evangelicals were wary of joining the anti-abortion fight because they were prejudiced against Catholics and viewed abortion as a potential Catholic stalking horse for outlawing contraception. In 1974, one year after Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention resolution on abortion called on the denomination “to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Even as late as 1977, the resolution’s language remained equivocal: “Be it further resolved, that we also affirm our conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.”
It was not until the early stages of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign that evangelicals finally joined the anti-abortion fight. They did it for two reasons. Francis Schaeffer, an influential evangelical theologian, writer, and filmmaker, wrote passionately about the issue and during the 1970s toured the nation’s churches showing a self-produced documentary portraying abortion as a depraved byproduct of modern hedonism. Paul Weyrich, an astute Washington, DC political strategist, shrewdly identified abortion as an issue with enough visceral appeal to unite warring factions of religious conservatives in a coalition to elect Reagan and other right-leaning politicians. By the 1980s, abortion had become a top priority for a nascent but rapidly strengthening political movement of conservative Christians.
There is an argument to be made that the anti-abortion movement was highly successful. The abortion rate in America peaked in 1980 at 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women, and with just three exceptions has fallen every year since. In many states, abortions are harder to obtain than in the decades immediately following Roe because restrictive laws and protests have shut down or curtailed the operations of abortion providers.
And yet, as the books under review testify, it becomes clear that, in a larger sense, the religious conservative campaign against abortion amounted to a huge loss. The loss was twofold. First, the standing of religious faith itself in America sustained a major blow from the way religious activists conducted their campaigns. The campaigns were invariably bare-knuckled, graphic, and punitive. They were run by skilled political operatives, raised large amounts of money, and cemented an image of religious political activism as no different from secular forms of political campaigning. Campaigns targeted abortion providers, Catholic politicians, and state legislatures. No comparable attention was paid to the women who actually sought abortions. Vastly fewer resources were devoted to ameliorating the primary causes of abortion, which, activists’ polemics notwithstanding, have nothing to do with sexual promiscuity and everything to do with poverty and the difficulties many Americans face marrying and maintaining a stable family in an era of economic dislocation.
Wills and Miller make the case that, in the instance of Catholics, the vehemence of the anti-abortion campaign was fueled by centuries-old antifeminist Catholic dogma. There is no denying that antifeminism was, and remains, a potent strain in Catholic theology and institutions. And it is equally true that conservative Protestants likewise were motivated to oppose abortion in part by their hatred of feminism. “If we accept the idea of equality [between the sexes] without distinction, we logically must accept the ideas of abortion and homosexuality,” Schaeffer wrote in 1984. “For if there are no significant distinctions between men and women […] this fiction can be maintained only by the use of abortion-on-demand as a means of coping with the most profound evidence that distinctions really do exist.” Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, was characteristically blunter: women who seek abortions “want to terminate their pregnancy because it limits their freedom and their job opportunities. […] Some members of the ‘jet set’ do not mind a poodle dog around the apartment, but a baby would cramp their style.”
And yet, the focus on antifeminism, though necessary, doesn’t go deep enough. The real issue, I think — and the real source of damage wrought by the anti-abortion campaign — is fear. The stories told by Miller, Wills, and Williams are ultimately stories about people who were afraid. They were afraid because the American economy, fundamentally reordered by the Great Depression and World War II, was changing rapidly yet again in a globalizing postwar world. They were afraid because a major byproduct of that economic change was changes in family structures and lifestyles that made it harder for people to adhere to old patterns of sex, marriage, and child-rearing. And they were afraid because the social forces unleashed by technology and global capitalism were rapidly creating new institutions and value systems that rivaled and even eclipsed religious authorities’ long-standing sway over morality.
Those were big changes. They made people, especially religious conservatives, afraid. The fight against abortion, though giving satisfying vent to those fears, ended up exacerbating them, because it cemented a conviction that religious faith was an embattled force in a hostile world. That defensive crouch represents a deeper form of psychological and emotional damage that is very difficult to recover from — especially for Christians, whose Savior admonishes them repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.”
The tragedy is all the more poignant because there is another way of looking at the abortion debate that steers well clear of all the bitterness and fear. Jerry Falwell’s throwaway insults about the “jet set” notwithstanding, the cold, hard fact is that more than two-thirds of all abortions in America are sought by women below or just above the poverty line. Two-thirds of women who obtain abortions are non-white, and more than three-quarters are under age 30 and did not graduate from college. The top reason cited by women in 2004 for why they sought an abortion was: “Can’t afford a baby now.” Just four percent of women said a baby “would interfere with education or career plans.”
In other words, the vast majority of women seeking abortions are young, poor, non-white, and lacking the education that would secure them a stable career. They, too, are frightened. They, too, have been whiplashed by an American economy that showers rewards on highly educated professionals but makes life very difficult for everyone else. It is obtuse in the extreme to argue (as commentators such as New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat does) that the legalization of abortion somehow caused the culture of premarital sex, which leads so many women to seek abortions. Leaving aside the abundant sociological research showing that rates of premarital sex in America have remained essentially unchanged for the past half century (and additional research — here and here — showing that the advent of readily available contraception and abortion changed attitudes toward marriage, not sexual behavior), such claims keep the debate about abortion obscured behind a blur of moral finger-wagging.
What if, instead, religious conservatives had looked at the research, read up on the economic forces fracturing American families, and set about trying to ensure that low-income women didn’t have to get abortions because they were feeling good about their educational and career prospects and marrying men equally on track toward social stability? The task is not as daunting as it might seem. Churches have money and, though they are diminished these days, they retain significant pull in their communities. Moreover, religious people have much wisdom to offer about successfully marrying and raising a family. Studies show that, though religious conservatism by itself correlates with higher than average rates of family breakup, religious commitment, regardless of political orientation, correlates with very low divorce rates.
What might have happened if churches, instead of throwing themselves into divisive political campaigns, had pooled their resources to establish a national network of experienced mentors who work closely with low-income families to help guide children toward college and stable career prospects? Research shows that disadvantaged children affiliated with religious institutions are more likely when they grow up to graduate from college, not smoke, delay sex, and have health insurance. What if the money churches spent on politicking had gone instead to college scholarships for low-income young men and women? Why aren’t churches leading the effort to pressure American corporations to regularize employee hours, so low-wage workers have enough predictability in their schedules to combine work and family life? What about persuading corporations to offer free high-quality daycare for employees? Indeed, why don’t churches offer free high-quality daycare themselves?
Whether or not such initiatives would eliminate the need for abortion, they surely would not be without effect. They are hopeful efforts, not fearful. In their absence, as long as fear rules the debate over abortion, it will continue. And it will continue to damage all who come into contact with it.