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Abortion in the Tides of Culture

[First Things, December 2002]

Where did the pro-life movement go? A half-dozen years ago movement activists were everywhere, drafting statements, holding press conferences, staring fixedly into the blind lens of a remote-studio TV camera. But a tide of silence has gradually come in. Abortion, which had defined "hot issue" for our time, mysteriously cooled off. Magazine cover stories have moved on to other topics; college students no longer crowd into abortion debates.

What happened? Did we all just decide to forget our differences and get along?

No, it’s more like we got bored. Not pro-life activists, who are as hardworking as ever. The general public got bored. It seemed to them like everything possible to say about abortion had already been said. In a sound-bite age, neither side was allowed to say very much; the pro-life message was condensed to "It’s a baby!" while pro-choicers insisted "It’s a woman’s choice!" These two arguments do not engage each other, but are locked in a futile clutch, punching ineffectively. After a couple of dozen years, no wonder the public’s attention drifted. Ever-sensitive media forces politely took the cue, and ceased giving space to the abortion issue. The debate was over.

The debate is over, but not the cause. Abortion remains as much a travesty as ever, but pro-life activists now face the frustrating task of trying to rekindle heat in a fire that has gone cold. An October 2000 issue of Newsweek demonstrated the problem bluntly. A six-page spread compared the stands of candidates Bush and Gore on a series of important issues: the environment, education, foreign relations, and taxes. There was no mention of abortion.

Pro-lifers may well resent this treatment, and suspect that the all-powerful media has deliberately squelched their voices. But the development is less an initiative of the media than a response. Public interest simply does shift with time. Seasons change, opinions change, interests wane, and issues which seemed urgent retreat to the background. The tide goes in and out, and the pattern of shells in the tidal pools changes twice a day. Each change is subtle, but by the end of the week it may be absolute. Media professionals are as influenced by these changes as we are, and exquisitely sensitive to losing the public ear. If all the abortion-debate shells have been washed out of the tidal pool, we’re not going to hear about them any more.

This kind of change is subtle, and hard to detect while it’s in process. The themes of an age are always invisible to its inhabitants, and become obvious only in retrospect. But we can get an idea of how the process works by time-traveling to observe a similar change in a previous generation. If we look at old movies, for example, we can see attitudes that filmmakers and audiences once shared which are foreign to us now. Some assumptions present in a classic 1930’s film would never play today.

Readers might presume I’m talking about positive family values that are currently passE. No, I mean the reverse: our great-grandparents embraced some values that today we readily recognize as negative and damaging. These attitudes were broadly accepted and celebrated in popular entertainment, much as reckless sexual ideas are today, yet over time they were gradually exposed, discredited, and discarded.

This is a story of hope. What pro-lifers have not been able to accomplish through a head-on attack may eventually take place anyway, thanks to humanity’s self-protecting tilt toward health. Sometimes positive change occurs due to an intentional campaign for moral reform, but more often it’s due to a gradual realization that certain things that looked like fun actually hurt. Sexual promiscuity, abortion, divorce, disease, and shattered families hurt a great deal, as had been obvious to our ancestors for millennia. The idea that the current situation is a bizarre blip, that sanity could return as slowly and completely as the tide, is a fully reasonable hope.

One of my favorite films is "It Happened One Night," a 1934 comedy that deservedly received five Oscars. It’s a delightful story with quirky characters, and a cast expertly led by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. But when Gable first appears onscreen, roaring drunk and telling off his boss over a pay phone, we wince. Though this is clearly meant to introduce him as a fun-loving charmer, alcoholism just isn’t funny to us. But to audiences of the thirties it was terrifically amusing to watch big stars act drunk-that is, not just sipping a little wine, but belting serious booze to the point of stumbling and bellowing. When Gable appears late in the film heartbroken and angry, his boss responds by sympathetically giving him funds to get plastered on and adds, "When you sober up, come in and talk to me." At the time, that was the appropriate thing to do.

"It Happened One Night" isn’t unusual in this regard. In the "Thin Man" movies, in nearly any "sophisticated" comedy of the thirties, drunkenness is a mark of distinction. People who disapproved of drinking were prissy and stuck-up; drunks were cool. Chronic alcoholics with hidden flasks were funny. Hangovers were funny. The pretty leading lady moaning with an icepack on her forehead was funny. Even delirium tremens, the terrifying hallucinations of a toxic drunk, were funny. Adult pro-drunkenness culture was so entrenched that it seemed normal, appropriate, to show a baby elephant undergoing horrible d.t.’s in Disney’s 1941 "Dumbo." Most children find the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence terrifying, but to adults of the time it was witty.

Replace "drunkenness" with "sex" in those paragraphs and you see a similar pattern. Today it is sex that the general culture finds endlessly amusing. Sex is the emblem of coolness. Anyone who opposes open-season sexuality is prissy and stuck-up; aggressive sexual athletes are cool. We likewise get a kick out of including children in the joke, seeing kids on sitcoms ask sexually-loaded questions or deliver double-entendres. We act like we just discovered sex, and any resistance, even in the name of taste, is hooted down. This rebellious enthusiasm is extremely difficult to counter, as temperance advocates could have told us.

What thirties drunkenness and contemporary free sex have in common is backlash, rebellion against a prior standard. That’s why both have such an immature or adolescent tone. The free sex movement of the late sixties thought it was overthrowing uptight, repressed fifties sexuality; adults who resented Prohibition in the twenties, and celebrated its 1933 repeal, had a similar liberationist mindset.

There are ironies in the cultural parallels, though. In the previous cycle, the moralizing meddlers were progressives and feminists. Prohibition was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that also promoted women’s suffrage and prison and workplace reform. These early feminists perceived that male drunkenness was a persistent hardship for women, accompanied as it often was by violence, job loss, and poverty. The 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, was ratified in 1919; the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, came a year later. But during the Roaring Twenties sneaking alcohol became glamorous and daring; my grandmother used to describe how a friend smuggled champagne to her 1924 wedding by sleeping on the bottles in his Pullman train berth. It was, we would say today, a transgressive act. It took another Amendment, the 21st, ratified in 1933, to restore the supposed right to drink, and by that time headlong defiance had canonized excess.

"Drunks are cool" is one example of a bad value that was gradually replaced by something healthier. This process took a very long time. We could mark the beginning in the tipsy Roaring Twenties, and the end with the criticism "Arthur" received in 1981 for treating alcoholism as funny. That’s nearly sixty years. Abortion has been legal for thirty years. It’s not time to lose hope.

But note that public attitude toward drunkenness was not changed by a revived anti-drinking moral crusade. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union did not finally develop the magic-bullet slogan that would "change hearts and minds." The WCTU in fact faded away, an organization that in the public mind was peopled by biddies and fools. Pro-life leaders likewise may never gain public admiration, never cook up that smash ad campaign that makes our cause fashionable at last.

In the meantime, of course, we can’t stop trying; we must continue to present the truth with the persistence of a tympanist in a symphony. We have to keep showing up, speaking, writing, doing the right thing, reaching at least "those who have ears to hear." But public approval or admiration may never be our reward. We may have to settle for being despised and rejected, just like Someone told us we would be-Someone who told us that persecution is, paradoxically, a blessing. Nothing is as spiritually transforming as being humbled, though it’s certainly not the blessing we want to seek.

The WCTU did not succeed; instead, the truth itself, which they had perceived, succeeded. Today partygoers are not embarrassed to request a glass of water, not wine. A guest who downed a quick series of Scotch doubles, in the old manner, would be the object of frowns and whispers. Excessive drinking is cool to nobody over the age of 18. What once was sophisticated now looks juvenile and self-destructive. And some day, God willing, irresponsible sex and its handmaiden, abortion, will look the same to our descendants. It may only take time for that truth to shine through.

That future time will not be perfect. Our grandchildren will have different ills to combat, which we cannot now imagine. It’s instructive to watch old movies with open eyes, and see the myth of a "pro-family" golden age crumble. Yes, characters waited till marriage to have sex, but women were routinely slapped and physically degraded; Jimmy Cagney started that fashion in "Public Enemy," 1931, when he shoved a half grapefruit into girlfriend Mae Clarke’s face. In "It Happened One Night" Gable threatens to break Colbert’s neck, and later tells her screen dad, "What she needs is a guy that would take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not." We may be shaky in our notions of what constitutes a "lady," but we have much healthier ideas about how a lady should be treated.

Likewise, you don’t have to watch many films of the era to notice that male adultery is treated lightly, as a boys-will-be-boys inevitability that women should smilingly ignore. Wives who complain are charged with destroying their marriages for the sake of foolish pride, as in "The Women," 1939. (The very clever script is by a woman, Claire Boothe Luce, which modern-day feminists would no doubt term an instance of "internalized oppression"). In "The Philadelphia Story," 1940, it’s Katherine Hepburn’s fault that her dad is pursuing a flirtation with a dancer; she failed to give him all the admiration a dad needs from a daughter, and the poor man was compelled to seek it elsewhere. We may have elastic notions about pre-marital sex, but our view of extra-marital sex is comparatively judgmental.

Finally, old movies might not have used explicit sex to heat up a movie, but instead they used hot "love-hate" romances that can strike modern viewers as truly sick. See "Gilda," 1946, for emotional sadism (Rita Hayworth’s true love torments her till she’s cowering and weeping at his feet), and "The Outlaw," 1943, for the physical kind (Jane Russell bound and abandoned in the desert sun, apparently just a spicy bit of lover’s play). Our generation may be desensitized to flesh, but we have a much more narrow idea of what constitutes a normal psyche or a healthy relationship.

The "good old days" had plenty of flaws, and by the time all the sexual-morality shells are back in the tidal pool, something else important is bound to be missing. This will always be an imperfect world. Those of us who follow the One who says, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," must go on doing the best we can, being light in the darkness and salt in the Land of Tastelessness. And, though we may never get the credit, we may yet see our goal.

The last time you saw abortion considered in a film or TV show, it was probably framed as the sad, noble decision of a suffering woman who was being unjustly persecuted by violent right-wing zealots. Lately, we’re not hearing much about the issue at all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; silence is a good medium for reflection. When the topic re-emerges-and it is impossible for something so painful to remain hidden-the story may well have a different twist. For the time being we must persevere with patience, and wait for the tide to turn.


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