I appreciate Robert VerBruggen’s thoughtful response to my Sunday post about the link between contraception and abortion. I suspect that we agree more than we disagree about how sexual mores affect abortion policy. That having been said, I wanted to respond to some of his arguments.
1. Polls on abortion are easy to manipulate. While there is plenty of evidence that the pro-life position has gained ground during the past 20 years — I am not convinced there is great public support for significant restrictions on abortion. Furthermore, the states that have been the most active in passing pro-life laws are states that are located in the deep South and Midwest — where there is more support for the idea that premarital sex is immoral.
2. VerBruggen is correct that judicial activism is, on balance, a greater problem than public opinion. However, a greater problem in my mind is how judicial activism often interacts with public opinion. If the Roe v. Wade decision had been handed down in 1963 or 1953, it would have doubtless provoked a greater backlash. As such, political efforts to reverse the decision would have likely met with greater success. However, public opinion on sexual and social issues had shifted enough by the early 1970s that the resulting backlash was not enough to reverse the decision.
3. VerBruggen is also correct that people were having premarital sex in the 1950s. However, the widespread availability of the birth-control pill in the early 1960s increased the incidence of premarital sex among every demographic cohort. Even studies published by the Guttmacher Institute acknowledge this. The widespread availability of contraception shifted sexual mores and likely facilitated the legalization of abortion.
4. Finally, I never said that a “sexually liberated culture is really inconsistent with pro-life laws.” I said a “sexually liberated culture is never going to support significant restrictions on abortion.” Regardless, there is no reason to give up. Pro-lifers can prevent the situation from getting worse. We can oppose efforts to distribute contraceptives to young teens. We can also support incremental pro-life laws. Many incremental laws do some good. Furthermore, it may be possible for some incremental pro-life laws to have an effect on the culture. I just think it will be difficult for pro-lifers either to ban or seriously restrict abortion in a promiscuous society.
VerBruggen is correct that creating a more chaste culture will pose a substantial challenge for the pro-life movement. Public policy is a rather clumsy tool for changing sexual activity in a positive way, and getting people to change their sexual behavior will doubtless be difficult. Pro-lifers need to realize this. Indeed, pro-lifers may discover that advocating for sexual restraint is more difficult than advocating for the unborn. However, this is a battle that pro-lifers must continue to engage in if we are to succeed in our goal of providing legal protection to all unborn children.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan — Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New