Published July 21, 2022
As passions surrounding abortion have reached a fever pitch not witnessed in the United States in years, it is perhaps inevitable that personal testimonies with regard to the matter have moved to center stage. After all, stories are one of the distinguishing characteristics of what it means to be human, for we are the one species on the face of the planet that understands its place in this world relative to the narratives we tell ourselves. And our understanding of right and wrong, of which actions are and are not ethically appropriate, is a central part of this.
The standard stories told in the abortion battles are typically those of the mothers, with the focus on whether they experience abortion as a liberating or scarring experience. Choose your side, choose your narrative. And that is what makes an article published last month on the website of NBC’s Today show a little unusual, for it focuses on fathers who have had wives or girlfriends who underwent abortions.
While the choice of fathers is unusual, the content of the article is determined by predictable pro-abortion clichés concerning how useful it is to be able to dispose of unwanted or unplanned babies lest they interfere with the life plans of the parents. To this, the new cliché—that of “pregnant people”—can be added, lest the article’s writer be seen to subscribe to the obvious and elementary truth, now decried as exclusive and oppressive, that only women can become pregnant. But while such an obvious falsehood is included, another obvious truth is conveniently ignored: The fact that the fall of Roe places America in the Western mainstream of abortion laws and practices, given that her previous position was wildly extreme compared to those of most other democratic Western nations.
Such clichés and omissions are standard fare. The same can be said for much of the testimony section of the article. In a manner reminiscent of the Beatles’ song “I, Me, Mine,” the fathers refer constantly to themselves and to how good the various abortions described have proved to be for them. The writer describes a couple of difficult scenarios, but the reader is not given enough information to make an informed call on these. The overwhelming burden of the case rests on three basic assumptions that clearly grip the moral imagination of those involved. Those assumptions are deeply rooted in the moral revolt of the modern age.
First, sex is entirely separable from pregnancy. Indeed, pregnancy in their minds is regarded simply as an unfortunate failure or aberration of the sex act, rather like being knocked down by a truck might be a problematic result of crossing a busy road. Sex as an act is understood as carrying no responsibility beyond the act itself, and any unforeseen consequences (such as the creation of new life) are merely technical problems that impose no obligation upon the parents.
Second, sex is recreation. When one father describes impregnating his wife before they were emotionally ready for children, the obvious riposte is: “Well, if you are not emotionally ready for children, you are not emotionally ready for marriage, or indeed for sex. Do not blame the child you created for your own immature incontinence.”
Third, the individual happiness of the parents is the moral imperative that governs everything. The child in the womb may live if he enhances parental joy. If he does not do so, he must be destroyed. The child, in short, is not to be treated as a person, with rights that impose obligations upon the parents. He is to be treated as a thing, rather like any other consumer good. His value is to be judged on the level of satisfaction he may or may not bring the consumer.
The narratives that Today published add nothing really to the debate. They merely indicate that men can hold to the same defective view of pregnancy as women. And they also indicate the depth of sheer selfishness that now shapes the American moral imagination concerning what it means to be human. We are not to think of ourselves first and foremost as responsible agents, with natural relationships of obligation to others. No. Moderns insist we are to regard personal responsibility as merely a temporary, incidental problem for the human condition, and one to be overcome by whatever technical means necessary.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.