In the fifty-plus years since the movement to legalize abortion in America began scoring successes, I have grappled with the mystery of how so many women in particular could politically support it with such consistent and sometimes ferocious conviction. Oh, it is easy enough to comprehend how an individual woman boxed into a seemingly impossible situation—pregnant and alone, with no means of support; or pregnant with an abusive partner; or pregnant after rape—could rationalize the aborting of her child as a necessary evil or perhaps even a positive good (“abortion is better than being unwanted,” etc.). It is also easy to comprehend how a woman could in anguish just jettison ethical arguments entirely and run for the nearest exit, like someone shoving aside anyone blocking the exit during a fire. Those reactions are consistent with responses to a variety of situations that trip in us some kind of fight or flight reaction. But despite our sympathies with people who succumb to less heroic alternatives or are blinded to the truth of what they are doing by depression and mental illness, we don’t pin a medal on soldiers who desert or fathers who abandon families—or mothers who sacrifice their children.
Nor would many of those mothers in crisis pin a medal on themselves—many either at the time of afterward recognize the gruesomeness of the exchange that, viewed through the narrow tunnel vision of dread or despair, seemed to be the best of bad options. Many of them are in fact haunted by their choice, and in the months and years afterward need help to climb up from a different kind of despair—despair of finding forgiveness.
But what seems to me much harder to comprehend is the full-throated support of the right to abortion on demand of women who are not in crisis—their politicking and promoting of it, their debating and protesting for it, because these occur, so to speak, in moments of cold blood. To me it resembles the difference between a crime of passion and calculated, first-degree murder. What can perhaps be, if not explained away, explained well enough so that the listener can understand the temptation succumbed to because of a conscience clouded by fear is absent from the standard NARAL or Planned Parenthood member’s brutal assertion that all women should have unrestricted life-or-death rights over their children.
But putting it that way suggests an analogy that may make it easier to position today’s abortion right in the historical pantheon of moral codes. For Westerners whose moral codes partially descend from classical Greece and Rome, the assertion of a mother’s unrestrained rights over her unborn child recalls, after all, the authority of the ancient Roman paterfamilias over the life and death of his family members. But the Judeo-Christian conception of human life, its origins, and its value that was grafted onto the classical world and from which our seemingly decaying civilization descends rejected that right to pronounce a death sentence for the newborn—or the unborn— whether hale or handicapped, conceived in marriage or outside it.
Abortion is condemned in one of the very earliest (likely first-century) Christian documents, the Didache, and it is condemned throughout all the intervening Christian centuries. Does that mean abortion was unheard-of, throughout all those centuries of the Christian era, in those countries where the Church had gained the upper hand over its variously pagan competitors? Not at all—any more than the Ten Commandments’ bans against theft and perjury ever reduced the incidence of those crimes to zero, or its moral strictures against lying and adultery erased those sins from human society. But the consistent condemnation of abortion, deriving from the recognition that all life ultimately has its source in God the Creator, and that among all of his creation, humanity alone has been created “in the image and likeness of God,” eradicated legal toleration and social approval of abortion and infanticide in Christian nations, greatly reduced their incidence, and pushed both to the shadowy corners of human behavior where unsanctioned and shameful activities occur.
There are many threads to the arguments for and against abortion in our time. Depending upon which end you tug at from the great ball of history, you can come up with different partial explanations for where we have ended up, with more than 63 million prenatal Americans dead since 1973 before they could draw in the air of our free country—so very free for the already born, but at a massive cost!
We can perhaps blame our present body count on the invention of modern largely reliable contraceptives. These spawned in those using them a kind of rational expectation of baby-free sex; if a child unaccountably was conceived anyway (an “accident,” because unintended by the couple engaging in the sexual act), then it needed to be eliminated to protect the implied guarantee offered by contraceptives of sex without conception.
But this moves us back to the moral and psychological aspect of the origin story of abortion—since the Pill itself and ancillary forms of contraception were themselves the product of societal pressures to find more consistently effective forms of birth control. In times past, many people, married and unmarried, for a variety of reasons, have desired easy and effective birth control, but before quite recently and aside from self-treatment with primitive concoctions offering uninspiring rates of success, or unsatisfactory forms of sexual semi-deprivation like withdrawal, these ancestors of ours entertained such contraceptive desires merely as wishes. It took additional developments to transform reliably baby-less sex from something little more than a fantasy to something little less than a demand, thereupon creating pressure to make backup abortion a right. One of these developments was the decline of the sense of the sacred, the numinous, the Mt. Sinai sort of God of thunder and earthquake whose attributes and existence C.S. Lewis insinuated into the figure of Aslan the lion in his Narnia books by describing him as good, but “not a tame lion.”
The effort to turn God into precisely a tame lion was an Enlightenment project. The time seemed ripe for reducing God to a more controllable being, a leashed and defanged deity that could perhaps residually serve as an unmoved Mover and a posited source of self-evident social and political rights (pace the Declaration of Independence or the more progressive French Rights of Man). The wars of religion and the breakup in Europe of a unified Christianity during and after the Protestant Reformation left many thinkers, particularly political philosophers, seeking more terrestrial sources of authority. Over the course of a couple of centuries and influenced by the developments of English political philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and continental ones like Rousseau, the model of God as an omnipotent ruler, actively holding us all in being and intervening in human affairs, came to be seen by political theorists as outmoded. Succeeding centuries saw the affirmation of political rights, including tolerance for religious diversity and free thinking, and the move toward more democratic forms of government, even in nations that technically remained monarchies. Divinely ordained moral codes increasingly appeared to be options rather than the Truth handed down from on high. Instead of being the standard by which we would be judged, such codes were alternatives that we judged according to how well they accorded with our ambitions and desires.
Meanwhile, science was hacking away, hither and yon, at all our thickets of ignorance about biology, chemistry, and physics. We can draw an analogy from the Age of Exploration’s enthusiastic mapping of large portions of Earth formerly unknown to Europeans, gradually disclosing the detailed contours of regions once labelled “terra incognita.” Similarly, scientists since the Enlightenment have expected (and in many cases still seem optimistically to expect someday, down the road apiece) that we will ultimately be able to explain everything. Consider, in fact, the title of Stephen Hawking’s book The Theory of Everything. The implicit or explicit question then arises: In a fully explained natural world, why would we need God?
The public reputation of “science” (which usually means “scientists”) took a hit during and after the recent pandemic, with many people concluding that scientists had caved to political and social interests. But far from abandoning all hope in “science” as something capable of advancing our well-being in areas like medicine and technology, most critics are merely calling out particular players for using their professional reputations to advance political or social agendas. Even now, “science” and its practical cousin “technology” are where we place our hopes when we are sick—or when we want to fly to Paris, email a friend, stream a favorite TV show, or settle an argument by consulting Wikipedia.
Despite the Enlightenment’s triumphs, however, the uber-logical, religiondismissing scientific approach is not the mode that the mass of humanity consciously adopts to explain the great mysteries of life—love and life and death, that sort of thing. But even among many religious believers today, there’s a sort of lived agnosticism demonstrated by declining affiliation with distinct religious communions, dwindling acceptance of religious dogma, church authority, and the demands of public worship, and increasing practice of behaviors condemned by traditional religious mores.
My focus here is on Christianity, since Western Civilization was conceived and developed in a Christian womb, so to speak, and since most people in the developed world, including the United States, trace their cultural heritage to Christian roots. Even though what sprouts from those roots nowadays is often ailing, it makes sense to refer to the Christian tradition when discussing modern attitudes in Western countries toward God and morality.
But besides the ailing expression of Christianity in much of the West (in Africa and parts of Asia Christian practice and belief are much more robust), and besides the belief that science is or will be capable of answering our questions and filling our needs, there is a third collection of people loosely associated by thinking and desires that are “thicker,” more imminent, less sunlit and, ultimately, less superficial than the scientific rationalists. Those in the varied domains of this group tend to the occult in more than one sense of the word. Theirs is the domain of the non-technological, Gaia-worshipping wing of the ecological movement; of witches practicing “white” or “black” magic; of pantheistic worshippers of the powers inhabiting nature and natural forces. Among their less ancient ancestors in the West are the Romantic movement, early popular anthropology of Frazier’s Golden Bough variety, aspects of Jungian psychology involving archetypes and the collective unconscious, some forms of extreme “blood and soil” nationalism and tribalism, and pantheistic religions. This is the realm of mysticism and emotion, and it can take the visitor down some very weird paths; but it does intuit that meaning cannot always be apprehended in the bright sunshine or revealed under a microscope. Relatively few Westerners plunge deeply or emphatically into the murkiest of these waters, but that doesn’t prevent a more general kind of influence from being more widely felt—for example, in the misgivings of those who doubt the technocrats’ myth of an uninterruptedly upward stairway to human progress.
But science and technology remain where most people hang their hopes for a better future, and meantime, if the thinning out of meaning from an increasingly more machine-like world renders life less of a pilgrimage or an adventure and more of a cruise-line vacation, there are some compensations for the loss of the grand, the sublime, the awesome in the original sense of that debased word. For instance, there is the pursuit of pleasure, the release from pain, the promised achievement of a more generally spry longevity. If all of this reminds the reader of the drugged-out boredom of Brave New World, well, it reminds me of that too.
Of course, we have not yet arrived at even a dystopian utopia. People still suffer pain and sickness, fear and loss, poverty, handicaps, heartbreaks, injustice, and untimely death. The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us that, however quick our learning curve in dealing with a new disease, we are still failing to eliminate death as the punctuation point to life. Though we have traveled much further than our ancestors toward achieving physical comfort for a large proportion of the population, we still spend much of our lives in discomfort, often in the form of emotional and psychological suffering.
Meanwhile we seek comfort and something we call fulfillment in exercising not so much our will as our willfulness—with fewer outward checks upon it, fewer taboos, and (perhaps more significantly) fewer inward checks of conscience and moral restraint, than at any time I have read or heard of.
And this is where I think some very thoughtful writers and thinkers go partially wrong, at least without inserting a number of caveats, in speaking of the re-paganization of our formerly Christian civilization. Although they rightly draw our attention to all the major indices of religious, moral, and familial collapse currently apparent in the West, not all of them seem to sufficiently appreciate how de-Christianizing differs from re-paganizing.
Dimly remembered scenes from Animal House notwithstanding, “pagan” does not mean addicted to orgies. The upper-class Roman world of the post-prime Empire—the world of Nero and Caligula and Commodus, to cherry pick the most notoriously abnormal and immoral of the bunch—would have appalled the elite families of the early Roman Republic as greatly as our own hook-up culture, abortion on demand, normalization of single parent families, homosexual marriage, and gender transitioning would appall Christians in the era of the Acts of the Apostles.
It wasn’t that truly pagan Romans and Christian disciples of St. Paul, for example, did not sin against their own moral codes; “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul notes, and some, then as now, have sinned egregiously. But they recognized their actions as violations of morality—and they believed that such violations had not merely personal but communal repercussions: harming the family, kinship group, city, and nation (Christians would add the Church, aptly identified by St. Paul as the Body of Christ). The social harm was not an add-on, like a lesser charge that a prosecutor slaps on a defendant to load up the odds of a conviction or persuade the defendant to cop a plea.
For pagan societies such as those from which the West sprang (and to the extent that I know something of non-Western ones), social harm or good was, in fact, the dominant concern. The fortunes of everyone in the family, the tribe, the town, the nation rose or fell on the constituent efforts of its members. And while some pagans around the Mediterranean basin, like the Egyptians, developed elaborate conceptions of an afterlife that, if one fulfilled the proper conditions, might be vouchsafed to those of the deceased whose bodies were correctly preserved, most of those whose civilizations seeded our own entertained fairly vague, formless, and dispiriting, so to speak, conceptions of life after death. That if anything would make them feel doubly justified in focusing on the good of the group, the family or clan or polis, rather than the individual whose span of life was so brief and whose after-story so obscure. The ideas of the great Greek philosophers suggesting that human beings share a divine spark were addressed to elites—and not accepted by all of them. The Athenian experiment of democracy, too, was exceptional—not just limited to certain classes and conditions (and of course, only to men), but further limited in time and space—democracy did not really catch on in ancient Greece or many other places for about 2,000 years.
So your pagan society in its prime—and not in its decadent death throes— was rule-bound and restrictive to a degree that would chafe and astonish not only your average individualistic and rights-touting American or European, but perhaps even some in politically restrictive totalitarian societies. (A closer analogy might be to traditional Muslim societies.) Rarely would you have final say—or very much say at all—in the family elder’s deliberations on the marriage or career choices of children; rarely was much upward mobility available. You did not choose a religion—your people had already made that group choice long ages ago, though privately you might harbor your own doubts or heterodox thoughts. You did not diverge substantially from those around you in pursuits or opinions; you worked most of the time and enjoyed periodic feast days and, if you were lucky, lived to see your children and your children’s children, anxiously hoping that most of them would not die so that you would be supported in your old age. A life largely free from serious disease, blessed with some family and friends, reached the acme of reasonable ambition.
And so it has been for most human beings on most of the planet throughout most of human habitation. But what people today seem to mean by paganism, when they are not merely referencing bacchanalian orgies or a Roman emperor cross-dressing, is something more in the category of that thicker, darker, more magical mode of seeing the world which was indeed shared by paganism but is far from the whole of it, and is unlikely to be reincarnated in toto. One reason for that is how much we have thrown away already by discarding a richly expressed, deeply believed, and orthodoxly practiced Christianity. Another reason is how thoroughly we have adopted the mindset of modernity, with all its individualism, excessive demands, impulsivity, and self-will.
That is why, for the most part, we of the over-developed world mostly seek from either of these modes of perceiving—the thin, clear, consommé of science or the thick, murky, magical stew—sources of power to be explored and used. Neither in that sense is a mainstream pagan way of seeing and acting, though pagan ages also had their examples of magicians, toolmakers, and inquirers into the scientific operations of nature.
This brings me round again to my opening puzzlement over what motivates large numbers of women to press for such an aggressive and unlimited right to abortion. The pro-abortion mentality does not achieve the dignity of ancient Roman or Grecian pagans; it may instead suggest something of the Maenads’ manic bloodlust, the Near Eastern sacrifice of newborn babies to fertility deities, or the self-indulgent and self-interested intellectual speculations of the sophists.
Mostly, however, pro-abortionists exalt the value and therefore rights not so much of individuals but of one particular individual: “My right trumps others because it is mine.” A pagan woman setting about aborting her baby for any of a variety of reasons would not posit her individual will to do so as a defense, not even in the privacy of her own mind. She would think not of rights but of necessities, like many women that actually undergo abortions.
Likewise, a pagan man pronouncing that his just-born child must die because of deformity or the family’s inability to provide for it was not weighing the baby’s rights against his own, but judging according to responsibilities, customs, the limits of the family or the community’s resources or capacities, the strengthening of the clan. Despite the resemblance in body count of proabortionists to the greedy fertility cult goddesses of the Middle East or the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, there are differences, and they do not particularly redound to the pro-abortionists’ credit. For instead of offering child sacrifice under a kind of duress, because the gods are powerful and we must placate them, pro-abortion activists nowadays “celebrate” the deaths of the unborn as sacrifices to and for women.
It seems likely enough that Western Civilization is well into its death throes. What will eventually emerge from the corpse—perhaps long after our own time—I don’t know. But in rejecting Christianity, the West is rejecting the fecund source of its creativity, vitality, attractiveness, and inspiration. What is being embraced in preference is not, I think, a re-paganization but something far more individualistic, grasping, and unutterably ugly. Like a man looking wistfully back on his childhood after a badly misspent life, we may be tempted to look back on some forms of paganism almost nostalgically, ruing all the good gifts that we were given at the dawn of maturity but eventually recklessly wasted, particularly in the past few centuries. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It grows harder in the growing grayness of our own era to believe that is always true.
Ellen Wilson Fielding, a longtime senior editor of the Human Life Review, is the author of An Even Dozen (Human Life Press). The mother of four children, she lives in Maryland.