The fight over so-called abortion rights continues as pro-abortion advocates in Ohio gathered enough signatures last week to put the question on the ballot in November’s election. Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last June, women around the country have filled the streets in protest, angry over restrictions that limit the innately barbaric act of emptying the womb of unborn life. But what accounts for the level of panic and rage we see in the faces of women protesting limits on abortion?
The explanation for such unbridled anger is usually cast in terms of rights. The right to do with my body as I choose. But this line of reasoning does not go far enough. Contraception and its necessary bail-out plan — abortion — have turned relationships between men and women upside down. Women have been the losers in this trade. Nothing brings that anger to the surface like abortion, which is seen as a miserable necessity in a world where men call the sexual shots in romantic relationships.
A Terrible Social Contract
Contraception and abortion were supposed to be tickets to a liberated life. Women could pursue their own career goals and sleep with the guy they choose. But smart, talented women who are handed the reins to the firm in their 20s often wake up in their 30s tired, spent, and alone. Men have come and gone. Sex without consequences has ironically made it harder for many women to have what they say they want: marriage and family.
The sexual revolution left women without grounds to expect much from men. Girls admit they feel forced to put out sexually in order to have any congress with a male. Imagine what you would feel if your first sexual experiences included painful or kinky sex with a guy whose imagination had been shaped by increasingly violent pornography. (More than 10 percent of sexually active girls between 14 and 17 have experienced choking as a way to heighten some guys’ pleasure).
It’s a terrible social contract. In order to be with a man you must conform to his sexual desires and pretend to like it. If you complain, there are plenty of other women who will take your place. Sex doesn’t have to lead to marriage or even an exclusive relationship. A woman can fritter away her best years of fertility waiting for a guy to man up to a real commitment. If she gets pregnant, that’s her problem. Who wouldn’t be angry?
The dirty little secret behind abortion is that the breakdown in sexual norms has served primarily the interests of men. In her book, Adam and Eve after the Pill Revisited, Mary Eberstadt establishes the links between the sexual revolution and the sorry state of affairs between men and women. Women long for a responsible man. Instead, Eberstadt explains they are faced with “chronically stupefied young men for whom love and romance have become unachievable, thanks to pornography.”
Eberstadt says that “the revolution effectively democratized sexual predation. No longer did one have to be a king, or master of the universe, to abuse or harass women in unrelenting, serial fashion. One only needed a world in which women would be assumed to use contraception, with abortion as a backup plan.”
The anger behind limiting abortion reflects something much deeper than personal “rights.” It’s the mirror of a woman’s fear of ending up alone. Not just by herself on too many Friday nights. No, alone, as in without the hope of a lasting, give-and-take relationship with a man who cares what happens to her after her body sags. Abortion is what she sees as a necessity in order to have a man in her life on any terms.
This Is Not Progress
The sexual revolution upended the way men and women relate to each other by placing desire — not responsibility — at the center of our interactions. We were told this was progress. In reality, we have moved backward. We are reverting to the old power dynamics of paganism.
In the pre-Christian Roman world, the body was merely a means to an end. A slave had no rights. A master could have sex with any slave he owned. Prostitution — the flesh trade — was a dominant institution. Pederasty was common. The familiar expression was that a Roman man had a woman to bear children, and a man for pleasure. As we see now, in pagan Rome the body was a commodity to trade on, a means of pleasure, or a way to produce offspring.
Over the course of 400 years, the body-and-soul theology of applied Christianity slowly dug us out of that pagan swamp. If every person, slave or free, male or female, is created in the image of God and of infinite value, then the integrity of his or her body matters. Men and women are meant for each other and their union bears children. We have a responsibility to each other that curtails our own individual desires. The sexual relationship of a husband and wife reflects the beauty of the love of God. We owe each other protection and devotion.
“Christian sexual morality marked a quantum leap in the foundational logic of sexual ethics,” explains classicist historian Kyle Harper in his book From Shame to Sin.
Christianity created a new social contract between men and women. We are not free to do as we please. We are held responsible for each other’s well-being. Beyond these merciful borders on relationships between men and women, various degrees of chaos ensue. Like desperate pagans, we wind up again sacrificing our children to the gods.
Hopeful Signs Emerging
Even in secular circles, women are starting to name the raw deal they’ve been handed in the name of freedom. Christine Emba’s book, Rethinking Sex, made its debut a year ago to much acclaim — no less than a Washington Post journalist was willing to say our vulnerability is being used against us. We need to rethink sex.
Emba’s basic plea is for men and women to acknowledge that people are getting hurt in the current arrangement. She calls for thinking about the welfare of the other person, what she calls “radical empathy.”
Women are admitting that this grand social experiment has turned out poorly, and abortion is its progeny. But unlike any civilization before us, we presume to educate male sexual drive into better behavior with pleas to will the good of others and play fairer.
History disputes this naive thesis. Sexuality is a powerful force in men’s lives because the God who made men meant to bless the whole of His creation through the way men and women come together, and new life unfolds. God calls that good. He asks a man to sacrifice immediate pleasure for the larger prospect of knowing and loving a woman and the children they create together.
That’s strong stuff. A guy who takes responsibility for his sexuality before God will grow from a boy into a man who can carry the weight of others’ lives. At 60, grandchildren wrap themselves around his knees. Male sexual energy moves whole cultures forward. Skylines are built, poetry written, diseases cured. Much of what we know as the best of Western civilization has come not from pleas for men to be better, but rather from a whole epistemological framework for what goodness is, where it comes from, and how it plays out between a man and a woman as they pledge themselves to each other and to those who come after them.
The anniversary season of the historic reversal of Roe v. Wade lets us take a clearer assessment of the relational wasteland that abortion represents. It’s time to reflect on how we came to this place. The rage in women’s faces makes its own kind of sense. We are meant to love and be loved. Men and women deserve better from each other than the ease of destroying lives they create.