David Frum writes on why the abortion rate is falling. He has a number of explanations, but the real reasons in my view are: partially, it’s 1) that pro-lifers finally got the positive side of their message right, 2) birth control is more widely available, and 3) in a broader sense, the cultural absence of stigma for single motherhood bore positive fruit.
This is maybe a controversial view – it’s certainly not one that gets a lot of positive response from my socially conservative friends – but culturally speaking, it’s definitively been a good thing (or the lesser of two evils) that single motherhood has been destigmatized. One of the major elitist Republican arguments for abortion was that society would crumble and we’d end up with a bunch of supercriminals because of single motherhood, and abortion was a quietly messy but necessary way to prevent this. It’s still something you hear rolled out occasionally. But of course it’s totally false and has not happened (thanks, Murphy Brown!).
Now, a bunch of other terrible things have happened (see Coming Apart) because single parenthood, particularly in the working class, is so much tougher than regular parenthood – and of course that’s ruined a bunch of lives and been hard for kids and moms alike. But the alternative is millions more lives that never existed and were snuffed out before they even came to be. Sending the woman at the well into the desert was never a wise choice if you wanted her to keep her unborn child, and the idea that it was better to eliminate that child in order to rejoin society actually seemed the easier or more appealing path.
The positive side of feminism’s lie about the ease of single motherhood has been a reduction in the number of women who feel incapable of raising a child and therefore choose to abort it. The subtext of the choice to abort is now one that downgrades women’s capacity – “you can’t handle a kid” “you’re too young/poor/irresponsible” “no one will be there for you” “you’re single and no man will want you if you have a kid” “what will this do to your career” all seem like lame and puritanical reasons not to have a baby now.
The alternative, culturally, is choosing life – and while it’s dangerous and risky, it’s also so much more fulfilling and uplifting and speaks to our natural inclination as humans. The pro-abortion frame is that religious communities and communities in general will ostracize you if you have a child (remember Mandy Moore in Saved?)… but in real life, the opposite is more often true, where all sorts of communities want to step in and help single moms.
The right message on child-rearing from the socially conservative set isn’t “single parents are sinful and bad and made poor life choices, shun the nonbeliever!”. It is “marriage and two-parent families are so much better for everybody.” In many areas of society, stigma is a healthy matter which contributes to cultural order. But the threat of stigma for out of wedlock births was also something that drove many women to the abortion clinic. For as much as social conservatives are concerned about the breakdown of the family and the absence of fathers, the elimination of stigma for single motherhood as a side effect of feminism has absolutely been a positive cultural factor. It’s a social problem that exists because pro-lifers won that argument.
There’s one more factor, too, of course: the pro-choice folks were always up against a survival instinct that has been ingrained in us since the dawn of time, battling against the ingrained human nature to love our children. Failure to recognize this is why the pro-choice community has shifted in desperation from arguing that abortion is a social necessity (which many people quietly believed) to arguing that it is a social good (which far fewer people believe). That was always an uphill battle, and I suspect in America they’ve lost that argument for good.