Both Left and Right will have to reconsider their decades-long assumptions
Yesterday a draft opinion was leaked from the US Supreme Court, concerning the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case: one that has the potential to overturn the cornerstones of US abortion law, effectively ending the federal ‘right’ to legal abortion.
The news has caused pandemonium, and no wonder. In effect it would undo America’s national consensus — however contentious this has historically been — on the sexual revolution. If this happens, it will force a shake-up of entrenched views on both sides of America’s political aisle concerning both the social meaning of sex and difficult questions of ‘personal responsibility’ versus wider societal obligations to mothers and babies.
The old-fashioned “patriarchal” sexual mores which arose prior to the sexual revolution encouraged (and often shamed) women to withhold sexual access except in the context of long-term male commitment. The sexual revolution offered a technological fix, in the form of birth control, promising to level the playing field so women could play it just like men. Then, as Erika Bachiochi has shown, this created an inexorable ratchet toward legalising abortion — simply because no method of birth control is fool-proof. And this radically transformed social and sexual norms.
One often-cited study, for example, shows how legalising abortion drove a sharp drop in the previously widespread norm of ‘shotgun weddings’. In turn, this resulted in rising single motherhood among women pressured into extra-marital sex with un-committed men, but who still balked at abortion when faced with unwanted pregnancy.
Most women, regardless of where they stand on abortion, recognise that you can’t have a liberal sexual culture for both men and women without a backstop in the case of accidental pregnancy. Accordingly, the news that abortion might be under threat prompted a wave of pro-choice calls for women to go on sex strike. As one put it: “If we can’t get pregnant now, guess we’re not having intercourse with men anymore!”
It rarely seems to occur to such individuals that this is functionally indistinguishable from the ‘abstinence’ promoted by social conservatives, regardless of how often the conservatives themselves point it out. In turn, this underlines the fact that the sexual revolution — commonly thought of as a moral transformation — was a material and medical one first.
If the material foundation changes, so will the moral one. It’s often argued that banning abortion will simply drive the practice underground. But another possible second-order effect might be a sharp drop in women’s willingness to take risks with casual partners: in effect, a female-led sexual counterrevolution. As one woman puts it: “Can we come to the consensus that we need to stop giving up the punani to losers bc now we might actually have to father [sic] their children?”
A fainter hope is that re-emphasising the link between sex and procreation may encourage American conservatives to revisit the wellbeing of mothers and babies not just prior to the baby’s birth but in its aftermath.
The American abortion debate is different to ours in the UK in no small part because America’s social safety net is so thin. Insurance-based healthcare means the uninsured — who are likely so because extremely poor — face either thousands of dollars in medical bills for having a baby or giving birth unassisted. Meanwhile there is no federally mandated paid maternity leave, and maternal mortality high by developed-world standards. By far the most common reason for abortion is poverty.
Some American pro-lifers recognise this, and many (often Christian) organisations are dedicated to providing support to impoverished pregnant women. But pro-choice feminists are also justified in noting the existence of conservatives apparently happy to hand responsibility for sexual continence entirely to women, while shrugging at male sexual libertinism. In doing so, they ignore the multitude of social and economic pressures that make unwanted pregnancy profoundly frightening.
Amid the cacophony triggered by this seismic leak, I have only the dimmest hope that the American Left will re-appraise the interplay between material and social facets of our sexual culture. Or indeed that the mainstream Right may discover a greater willingness to acknowledge reproductive asymmetry in improved maternity provision. But if nothing else, the end of Roe suggests that a longstanding deadlock on these issues has ended, making room for movement on positions long bitterly entrenched.