What Will Future Historians Say About Abortion?


I hate the term “right side” and “wrong side” of history.  No historian should use these phrases. They are moral, not historical, phrases.  When people use them they are usually saying more about their own politics or religion than the patterns of history.  When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was making a theological statement.  It is a theological statement that I affirm because I am a Christian who hopes in a coming Kingdom where justice will prevail, and not because I wholeheartedly embrace the Enlightenment idea of progress.

Historians know that the story of humanity does not always bend toward justice.  Usually those who reference the right and wrong sides of history have a political axe to grind.  Historians, of course, are not prophets.  We cannot predict the direction history will move.  Christian historians should have eschatological hope, but we cannot pretend to claim that we know all that God is doing.  This is why we talk about humility and mystery.  We see through a glass darkly.

In her recent piece on abortion at VOX, evangelical feminist Karen Swallow Prior does not use the phrase “right side of history” or “wrong side of history,” but she does invoke a kind of ethical trajectory–a teleology if you will– that is born out of her Christian convictions and her belief in moral progress.  As a historian, I am trained to treat her predictions with caution.  As a Christian who believes we must reduce the number of abortions in the United States, I say let’s hope she is correct.

Here is a taste of her piece, “Abortion Will Be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that abortion hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade11.8 per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 1980s that approached 30 per 1,000 women. It’s unclear whether this decrease is owing to increased use of contraceptives; delayed sexual activity among young people; the declining number of doctors willing to participate in abortions; a growing inability to deny — thanks to ultrasound technology, prenatal surgical interventions, and extravagant gender reveal parties — the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb; or a combination of all these factors.

Whatever the cause, however, abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable. Recent attempts in several states to expand access to late-term abortions in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe not only violate the view of the majority (who support greater restrictions after the first trimester) but will be seen by future generations as a last, desperate show of stubbornness in the face of human progress.

Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.

Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.

When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice and why we harmed so many women to do so.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminds me of what I wrote earlier this week about Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that the Democratic Party change its views on abortion:

I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:

  1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.
  2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).
  3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.
  4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

11 thoughts on “What Will Future Historians Say About Abortion?

  1. Rick,

    I respectfully think you are still viewing these issues through a 1930s economic lens. The oligarchs and supranational barons have little truck with the religious right. In fact,that is where Hillary got a large portion of the estimated billion dollars she spent in her quest for the presidency. The oligarchs don’t get energized about stopping abortion. They buy politicians who will do their business bidding.



  2. Tony illustrates my point. Bring up the problem of wealth inequality and you’ll quickly hear that it’s not happening/not a problem. Meanwhile, actual historians who have studied the data insist we’re living in another Gilded Age.


  3. Tony – Forget about Bentleys – the rich buy something bigger and better than Bentleys – they buy politicians. They buy politicians so they can get more tax breaks, more money. And, the very rich don’t care about the little guy – they are too busy competing with each other to be on top of the Forbes 400 list. Enough is never enough for them. They always want more.


  4. Dave: I appreciate your comment. We can and should have a conversation about wage stagnation.
    My point was that the concept of wealth inequality, standing alone, is not very useful.
    Moreover, the economy is not a zero-sum game. I am leery of phrases like “wealth is being concentrated” because it suggests some finite amount that is being unfairly allocated. If a rich person buys a sixth Bentley, that doesn’t mean that money would otherwise have gone to Joe Sixpack. This notion of the rich taking or stealing from the poor — I hear this kind of language all the time — is nonsensical to me.


  5. Under the name “Mat-tanks”, that piece of tech has been a fixture in “biopunk” SF from before the time of Cordwainer Smith.


  6. The trouble is, what you have described in your example isn’t what has been happening. The wages of the great majority of earners have remained relatively stagnant while almost all the wage growth has occurred in a small percentage of the top earners. An greater and greater percentage of total wealth is being concentrated in the very small subset of the wealthiest people and this trend has only been accelerating. If the growth among top earners was being matched through earnings increases for lower earners, as in your example, this wouldn’t be as troubling of a dynamic. But in fact it isn’t being matched, there is little or no growth at all.


  7. Regarding this notion of wealth inequality:

    Let’s say person A makes 50K per year, while person B, his oligarch-ish neighbor in the gated development across the way, makes a scandalous 1 million per year.

    The next year, person A gets a huge promotion and doubles his salary to 100K per year. BUT, so does person B, to an obscene two million per year.

    This means that the wealth inequality gap between persons A and B has dramatically widened.

    Should person A, having doubled his income, be upset by this? Should anyone object to this state of affairs? If so, why?


  8. Thanks for both of your posts. I agree with Carter’s thoughts about the Democratic party, and wholeheartedly agree with Karen Swallow Prior.


  9. Future historians will say, “While the nation slid into oligarchy, and wealth inequality reached alarming levels, the most visible part of Christendom — the religious Right — remained distracted by abortion and other culture war issues, taking the side of the oligarchs on most economic matters.”

    Feel free to borrow that.


  10. The artificial womb that was successfully demonstrated on eight fetal lambs recently could end elective abortions.


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