Politics & Policy

Roe v. Wade at 36

How will future generations judge us on abortion?

Just two days after the inauguration, another crowd filled Washington’s streets: pro-lifers who gather each year for the March for Life. January 22 marked the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and, after so many years with little change or improvement in abortion law, the nation has grown a bit blasé about this annual demonstration. We still say abortion is a hot issue–but it’s not as hot as it used to be. The abortion controversy used to command cover space on magazines, while TV networks hosted hour-long debates. You don’t see that any more.

Maybe people just got tired of hearing about it. Year after year, the two sides said mostly the same thing–and nothing much changed. Eventually, public attention was bound to sidle off to some new, more  exciting topic (gay marriage, anyone?). When attention drifted, it was the pro-choice side that had command of the status quo.

#ad#And you could say that settles that; from now on there will be less and less talk about abortion, and we’ll just get used to things the way they are.

But I can imagine things going a different way. Not soon–maybe not till the baby boomers have passed from the scene–but it’s possible that a younger generation will see abortion differently. With abortions now running around 1.2 million per year, the total number of abortions since Roe v. Wade is about 49 million. That’s a big number–about a sixth of the U.S. population. It’s an especially big number if you’re not absolutely sure that it’s not a real loss of human life.

After all, if you see a little girl hit by a car, you’re going to yell, “Get an ambulance!” not “Get a shovel!” It’s in the very fabric of humanity to be on the side of life if there’s the faintest hope that life exists. We don’t throw children away when we’re not sure whether they’re alive or not. And, as the pro-choice side never stops saying, it’s not that they’re positive a fetus is not alive–it’s that they’re not sure. As the cliché goes, “Nobody knows when life begins.”

When I was a young, fire-breathing college feminist in the early 1970s, we didn’t see abortion as a melancholy private decision–it was an act of liberation. By choosing abortion, a woman could show that she was the only person in charge of her life and bowed to no one else’s control. But this formulation soured as the grief felt by post-abortion women began to accumulate. The flip side of autonomy is loneliness, and, for many women, their abortion decision was linked to emotional abandonment.

And then there was the advent of ultrasound technology, enabling us to see live images of the baby moving in the womb. In 1989, word went round the pro-life movement to order the tape of pollster Harrison Hickman’s presentation at that year’s NARAL convention. On it he said, “Nothing has been as damaging to our cause as the advances in technology which have allowed pictures of the developing fetus, because people now talk about that fetus in much different terms than they did 15 years ago. They talk about it as a human being, which is not something that I have an easy answer how to cure.”

So there are some reasons to think that the abortion question has not been settled, but has merely gone underground. That might be a necessary step. It has to go away so that it can be rediscovered and seen in a fresh light.

I don’t expect that reconsideration soon: My boomer generation will never see abortion as anything other than the wise and benevolent gift we bestowed on all future generations. We still control the media, the universities, and so forth, and it will take time for all of us to topple off the end of the conveyor belt.

But the time is coming when a younger generation will be in charge, and they may well see abortion differently. They could see it not as “a woman’s choice” but as a form of state-sanctioned violence inflicted on their generation. It was their brothers and sisters who died; anyone under the age of 36 could have been aborted, and somewhere around a fourth or a fifth of all babies are. A younger generation might feel a strange kinship with the brothers and sisters, classmates and coworkers, who are missing.

And I’m afraid that if they do see things that way, they aren’t going to go easy on my generation. Our acceptance of abortion is not going to look like an understandable goof. The next generation can fairly say, “It’s not like they didn’t know.” They’ll say, “After all, they had sonograms.”

Even in my generation, people who think of themselves as defenders of the weak and the oppressed may occasionally have a quiet moment when they wonder, “How, on this one issue, did I wind up on the side that’s defending death?”

There’s a lot of ambivalence out there, and a lot of unspoken grief too, I think. Our pro-choice generation may have won the day–but sooner or later, that day will end. No generation can rule from the grave. When that time comes, another generation will sit in judgment on ours. And they may judge us to be monsters.

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.

Frederica Mathewes-GreenFrederica Mathewes-Green has written for National Review, the Washington Post, Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, Books & Culture, Sojourners, Touchstone, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been ...

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