I have organized dozens of pro-life groups, first as an undergraduate, then throughout my career as a high school teacher. And for thirty-plus years, I have been surprised by the number of decent, moral, conscientious students who, though vaguely sympathetic, wouldn’t venture to become actively pro-life. I have also been surprised by the types of students who joined pro-life groups—for the longest time, I misunderstood what motivated them.
There is a widely held misunderstanding concerning the foundational traits of prolifers. We are often caricatured as repressed and nerdy. It is generally thought that we rate high on conventionality and conformity. And it is true that most of us would strongly align with Edmund Burke’s famous description of society as “a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Many prolifers themselves think they are motivated by a spirit of regard for accrued wisdom and an abiding social contract. And most would agree with the popular perception of prolifers as peaceable conservatives. But I’ve come to believe this is not really the case.
My thinking, rooted in virtue theory, used to run like this: Abortion is clearly the greatest evil of our time. To overcome the greatest evil requires the greatest virtue. Virtue is a scaffold, and the greatest (or higher) virtues are built on a foundation of lesser (or lower) virtues. Those who exhibit the lesser virtues—the well-balanced, orderly, conscientious, diligent, and goal-oriented—will naturally be the ones most likely to possess the greatest virtues.
For the longest time, I expected the best and most well-rounded students to become prolifers. They would be more likely to see through deceptions, I thought, and therefore would want to speak up and do something about the injustice of abortion, even at great personal cost.
But prolifers, I have found, are often not the most well-rounded and accomplished individuals. And for most of us, it is not conservatism that impels us to become involved in pro-life work. But “conservative” is a convenient tag for reductionist binary thinkers looking for an easy way to contrast us with “deconstructionists”—the intellectual vandals (and their followers) who have been attacking all that is good and true since World War II.
Generally speaking, conservatives are well-adjusted and peaceable quietists. Prolifers are not well-adjusted, peaceable quietists. We are radical, looking to the root of things; we are extremist, willing to follow the thread of undeniable truths even as it leads us far from the accepted views of the herd. And though we may not label it as such, we are likely to subscribe to some variation of what might be called the Black Swan view of history.
Black Swan theory was presented by options-trader-turned-academic Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable as a way to explain the significance of transformative outlier events.
High-profile, rare events, such as the discovery of antibiotics (a positive Black Swan) and the 2008 financial crisis (a negative one), are unpredictable, according to Taleb, but have such transformative consequences (e.g., in science, finance, technology) that people are moved retrospectively to find explanations that might account for their seeming randomness.
According to conventional historical theories, the pro-abortion-rights position is all but inevitable. Secularization, radical autonomy, and a weird combination of consumerist optimism and existential gloom all intertwine with abortion rights. It would seem that to be a prolifer is to fight the inevitability of the tides.
But pro-lifers aren’t stoic defeatists, laboring on simply because it’s the honorable thing to do. Fundamentally, we are NOT Hegelians or Marxists, believing in historical inevitability. And it’s not even an intellectual thing so much as an intuitive and spiritual thing. To illustrate the futility of conventional historical models, which are based upon patterns from the past, Taleb uses the example of the turkey and the butcher. For 364 days of the year, the life of a turkey is calm, peaceable, and predictable. Then, on T minus 2 (2 days before Thanksgiving), it is catastrophic.
Turkeys are famously small-brained, stupid birds. Like turkeys, it is natural for us to expect that things will continue to be as they have been. And as a society, day-to-day operations have to be governed by common-sense realism rooted in the assumption that the future will unwind much like the past. But prolifers have a stronger intuitive-spiritual sense for outlier possibilities, for things that are beyond the conventional imaginative horizon. We know that some big gamechanger is coming. Someday.