A few years ago I read an online exchange between two self-described Christians that has lingered with me as a good summary of our cultural moment. One of the speakers identified as bisexual, but also as a Christian, and was arguing with more traditional Christians about sexual ethics. During one exchange, one such commenter asked her to provide a coherent moral argument for why Christians should change their beliefs about sexuality and marriage. Her response was simple: “My existence is not a moral argument.”
I remember reading that line and thinking that such a response, while not necessarily convincing, was nonetheless powerful in its own way. For this woman, sexuality was not an issue, it was an existence, and it was beneath her most fundamental moral sensibilities to actually explain her life and her choices. She didn’t need to. She knew who she was, and that was that. I didn’t really admire the logic of it, but I had to admit: She had a point.
But my admiration was short lived. As I read more about her, I saw her work on other topics. Now she was talking about abortion. Shortly after confidently declaring that her existence was not a debate topic, she had fired off effusive defenses of Planned Parenthood, including a leave-no-doubt defense of abortion rights and unmistakeable contempt for anyone that would try to tell a pregnant woman what she could or could not do with her body.
I sighed. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised, but I wish I had been. This writer was authoritative in assuring the primacy of her bisexuality over other people’s moral judgments. Her bisexuality was a fact, not an issue to be debated. But when it came to the unborn, when it came to the tiny human bodies that exist hidden inside other bodies—well, that was a complex moral issue, and dogmatism there was unacceptable. Her existence was not a moral argument. Theirs was.
Was this merely a case of an appalling lack of self-awareness? Was she honestly unaware of the inconsistency here? Could anyone be so blind? It’s possible, I suppose. But I don’t think she was being inconsistent. The self-authentication of her sexuality was, sadly, not the germ of a pro-life ethic. In fact, it was the antithesis of it. Why does the current of the sexual revolution—especially emphasis on the radical autonomy of the body and self-determination over transcendent norms—not carry its members to the delta of unborn personhood? The answer is that it was never meant to. Abortion is the sexual revolution, and the sexual revolution is abortion. To speak of one is to speak of the other.
The sexual revolution’s assault on the bodies of the most vulnerable is one of its most nefarious, and under-discussed, legacies. Family disintegration, no-fault divorce, pornography, the redefinition of marriage, and now radically dehumanized gender ideology are usually thought of by conservatives as equal-opportunity afflicters. In a sense, that’s true.
But it’s also true that these trends particularly affect the poor, the weak, and the socially disadvantaged. For example, research suggests that pornography addiction stymies the psycho-social development of young men, resulting in fewer meaningful relationships and a greater propensity for isolation and entertainment binging. How this dynamic especially harms poorer and less connected men is obvious. Men whose lives have been stagnated by pornography experience a cruel irony: Their pornographic fantasies reinforce their sense of entitlement, but those addicted become actually entitled to less and less.
The more important reason, however, that the sexual revolution disproportionately harms the under-privileged is that such persons are the ones who most benefit from that which the sexual revolution most directly attacks: Community. Divorce is not healthy for any child, but its effect on children who become adrift between adults with competing custody claims is more serious. Severing children’s most important connection to home, the marriage of their parents, can and often does have far-reaching consequences to their sense of belonging and self-esteem. In his recent bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance vividly recounts how the separation of his parents, as well as his mother’s struggles with addiction, shaped his adolescent sense of himself and his future.
Further, the internal logic of no-fault divorce is that since marriage is more or less a mutually consenting business contract—certainly not a “covenant”—making it easy to dissolve befits the autonomy of both spouses. No one, the thinking goes, should have to stay married to someone they no longer wish to be with. Interestingly, the reasoning behind the redefinition of marriage is almost the perfect inverse of this logic. No one, it is said, should be prevented from marrying someone that they do wish to be with.
In both divorce and same-sex redefinition, the concept of marriage becomes “owned” by individuals, not by community (past or present). What is marriage? It’s whatever you decide (consensually, of course) it is. This mentality, whether expressed in no fault divorce or marriage redefinition, ploughs down tradition and covenant—which are both, by definition, community ideals.
The assault of the sexual revolution on community is the key to understanding the logic of abortion. It is impossible to attack the moral value of community without necessarily attacking the moral value of individuals themselves since those individuals are inevitably and inextricably members of different communities.
This means that the sexual revolution’s rage, while is allegedly directed outward toward the objective constraints of oppressive morality, ends up being directed inward, toward the self. This is the paradox at the heart not only of abortion rights, but of transgender ideology (wherein the absolute worth and autonomy of inviduals somehow necessitates surgical war against the body).
Rod Dreher, writing about transgender icon Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner, makes this connection explicit. Jenner’s understanding of who he is as a gendered person is, Dreher writes, radically anti-body. It’s this same subjection of bodies to all-powerful wills that fuels the Planned Parenthood industry:
In both the Caitlyn and Planned Parenthood cases, the stand you take has everything to do with what you think it means to be human, and how you relate the human being to the natural order. Modernity generally sees the material world as meaningless matter that we can fashion however we like. The older world — including the world of Christianity — teaches that God is intimately involved with Creation, and that we therefore have strict limits governing how we should treat it, including our bodies. A big problem is that far too many modern Christians have lost that older, classical Christian metaphysics, and no longer view the body and nature as bound inextricably to the divine.
Dreher gets right to the contradiction at the heart of the sexual revolution: Its rhetoric emphasizes the value of individual autonomy, which is allegedly so precious that it cannot be accurately evaluated by the moral imagination of the community. In practice, however, the sexual revolution separates individual identity from one’s material being so completely that mutilation, either of the born or unborn, is suddenly compatible with the ideals of human freedom and equality.
Maintaining this worldview requires active hostility toward the body. It also requires a steady rejection of the physical creature itself, relying more on ideology than biology to explain what a person is. The most recent example of this was Moira Weigel’s essay for The Atlantic, in which she argued, as the original title indicated, “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea that a Fetus Is a Person.” Weigel, not a doctor or scientist but (according to The Atlantic’s author bio) a “doctoral candidate in comparative literature,” showed such astonishing ignorance of basic biological fact in her essay that The Atlantic’s editors were compelled to officially correct the piece no fewer than 5 times, corrections that culminated in a telling revision of the piece’s title: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change was wise. The essay was little more than a lengthy appeal to abortion rights ideology, which would have been standard pro-choice fare if not for the direct line of attack that Weigel took at fetal personhood.
But the collapse of her claims illustrate how dependent abortion rights advocates have been on shifting the topic away from the philosophical debate over personhood and toward slogans and euphemisms, such as “safe, legal, and rare.” There is evidence that the softened tone of the Clinton-era abortion rhetoric is losing its charm with the younger generation of feminists and advocates, who seem to have grown impatient with this kind of thinking. They believe rather that, in the words of Katha Pollitt, abortion is a “positive social good” that should be encouraged, not even passively shamed by words like “rare.” This is the fundamentally anti-body nature of the sexual revolution flinging back its shroud.
Understanding the ideological DNA of the sexual revolution is necessary for understanding the many apparent contradictions of progressivism. On the one hand, the disintegration of public sexual morality, feminism, and the redefinition of marriage all seem to be movements of personalism against abstract notions of the objective and the transcendent. These movements seem to be pro-people.
But on the other hand, this movement seems coterminous with other movements, such as abortion rights, assisted suicide, and gender ideology, which endorse a strong—even violent—bifurcation between the person and the body. If we fail to understand the operative ideas at work in the sexual revolution, this seems to be an inexplicable contradiction.
But it is no such thing. It is instead a singular narrative of who human beings are, a narrative that could not possibly contrast more vividly against the narrative offered by the gospel, which teaches a holistic human dignity that values community and understands human persons as both body and soul.
Rather than see abortion in wholly culture war terms, pro-life conservatives ought to understand it as a vestige of the nihilism of the sexual revolution. We ought to address it politically, because the personhood of unborn bodies is a deeply political issue. But we must also address it religiously, and philosophically, and communally. Abortion exists not because babies are inhuman but because adults believe themselves, at some level, to be something less than human. That is not merely false ideology. It is a wound, a wound that pro-life, especially evangelical pro-life, stands ready to help heal. As Russell Moore has stated, the sexual revolution has and will continue to have a refugee crisis. The question for pro-life is: Are we ready to receive them?