The anti-abortion movement is in a strange place. On the one hand, Roe v Wade might soon be substantially weakened by the US Supreme Court, perhaps ultimately leading to its complete overturning (though I remain sceptical about that possibility). A wave of pro-life laws could result, giving a psychological boost to abolitionism worldwide. Viewed through that lens, the pro-life movement is doing well.
But change your lenses and the picture looks very different. Though the US is evenly split between people who identify as pro-choice and pro-life, Gallup polling finds that the youngest age cohort, 18- to 29-year-olds, are 62 per cent pro-choice to 33 per cent pro-life. Europe is worse, with legal abortion mostly a settled question. In Ireland, which recently repealed its pro-life Eighth Amendment, 87 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted in favour of repeal. Anecdotally, those views do not seem to shift as people age – at least not as much as they once did.
So the pro-life movement has a huge task. Regardless of current legal battles, large numbers of people in the West – especially young people – have pro-choice views that are hardening, not weakening. This is a profound problem, and legal change alone won’t solve it.
How should the anti-abortion movement respond? I think the solution is twofold.
The pro-life movement’s future is both more secular and more religious. It needs to wage the battle for hearts and minds on two fronts.
One front is direct advocacy. In my experience, the best way to engage with my generation is through the kind of work done by groups such as Rehumanise International, Secular Pro-Life and various feminist groups. They speak to pro-choice people about abortion by using the language of other causes they already care about – because these advocates care about many of those causes too. They are more successful at reaching pro-choice people because they understand them. I often see people react to these pro-life groups with some variant of, “Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way before.” They can open minds in a way that explicitly religious, direct advocacy usually finds much harder to achieve.
These groups serve another function: they show pro-choice people that it’s possible for a person like them to be pro-life. It’s possible to be a pro-life feminist who does more than pay lip service to women’s equality, or a pro-life left-winger, or a pro-life atheist.
So that’s the first front: I think the front-line advocacy wing of the pro-life movement will benefit if it is driven by these kinds of groups and strategies. But that is only part of the story.
Most people don’t change their minds because of arguments, however well made. Most people go along with the zeitgeist and follow dominant cultural scripts. And there seems to be something deep-seated about the scripts of Western societies that inclines their citizens towards pro-choice views. There is a huge social, cultural and economic push against the idea that people should be subject to any unchosen obligations, and a new concern for respectability that doesn’t leave room for career-endangering unplanned pregnancies.
Our societies worship at autonomy’s altar, and our economic system incentivises atomisation and the productivity advantages it brings. Dissenting from deep-rooted scripts like these without having another set of deep-rooted scripts to adopt instead is difficult. There’s a reason pro-life atheist and agnostics are rare.
It takes unusual open-mindedness and courage (or strong contrarian impulses) to dissent from the dominant view without having a tradition and a community for support.
In the long run, I think the path to a pro-life society runs through religious revival. As a Catholic, I think that Christianity provides the best alternative set of scripts: we view relationships of unchosen obligation not as horrific impositions but as the true stuff of life. We honour not the autonomous individual but the person ensconced in a web of relationships with God and their fellow man. In practice, we’re the most likely to care for rather than abort our disabled children. Christian communities are able to challenge the current Western worldview, to offer counter-narratives and build a counter-culture. So the second front in the pro-life movement’s battle is, in simple terms, the rebuilding of the Church.
These two fronts will often be manned by people who don’t agree on much. But I think Christians should enthusiastically support the new wave of more secular pro-life groups: we believe, after all, that the equal right to life of the pre-born is a matter of natural morality, accessible to those who don’t have faith. And I want to suggest that our secular allies should welcome the more humane set of social scripts that a properly Christian society would have. The two fronts should be seen as complements, not substitutes: a grand alliance among those who believe in universal human dignity.
Ben Conroy recently completed an MA in philosophy at University College Dublin. He studied PPE at Oxford and was co-president of Oxford Students for Life