Many years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I ran into a fellow Sunday School teacher one day who congratulated me on my soon-tobe-born baby. As he turned to leave, he casually mentioned that he would pray it was a boy.
Startled, I didn’t know what to reply. Of course, male heirs have been important for a variety of reasons since the dawn of time for families, clans, and nations. Even today in many poorer and more traditional societies it is the male children who are expected to provide for aged parents, carry on family farms or trades, and of course, in most pre-modern monarchies, to reign over kingdoms. A family without sons, in such societies, lacked a provider and protector, condemning its members to poverty and subsistence on charity.
But I was no Catherine of Aragon, and this was 20th-century Manhattan. Sure, my husband and I hoped for sons as well as daughters, and there was that vestigial carrying-on-the-family-name thing, but this was my first child, with plenty of time for more.
But because “I’ll pray it’s a boy” seems to assume this is the obvious thing to pray for—though, in a 20th century urban American context, provision for my declining years would likely not depend on my bearing a male child—I looked for the subtext.
You pray for what seems to you a good outcome. So if having a boy would be a good thing, did that make having a girl—a bad thing? But I was a girl. Where did that leave me?
To be clear, my colleague was a great guy—a loving husband and parent who would cheerfully have given his life for any of his own children, male or female, and was just as prone to brag about his daughters as his sons. Still, this incident came to mind when I spotted a news story recently about sexselection abortions in India.
Drawn by the headline “46 Million ‘Missing Females’ Were Aborted in India over the Last 50 Years” (New York Post, Dec. 27, 2021), I read reporter Samantha Ibrahim’s account of the several-decades-long “rampant” practice of sex-selection abortions of female babies, often under pressure from the husband or the husband’s family members.
The specific cultural and economic context in which women from India, China, and certain other poorer and more rural countries have sought abortion of females does not, as the saying goes, “excuse” but does help “explain” why they do it. For much of the world is more precariously placed economically than the U.S. and Europe, and their cultural, religious, and economic predispositions reflect that. In India as in many places with expanses of poor and rural populations, it is the male child who helps provide for elderly parents and relatives, while the daughters are absorbed into the husband’s family, where they in turn anxiously await the birth of a son. Add to this traditional arrangement the modern push to reduce family size, encouraged by the West, and the pressure mounts if the first child is a girl.
Therefore in a population-preoccupied nation like India, where poorer families also bow under the weight of providing traditional dowries for their girls, it has become common (though illegal since 1994) to seek knowledge of the unborn child’s sex so that any girls detected can be aborted.
Now, the fact that these imbalances of male to female exist in poorer, more rural, and more traditional societies, though sad, is not very surprising. More surprising should be the pro-abortion and feminist resistance in Western nations to attempts to outlaw such practices. In the homelands of #MeToo feminism, the same people who champion equal funding of men’s and women’s sports programs grow quiet when prenatal sex selection comes up—after all, it is a woman’s “choice.”
The specific contexts in which women from India, China, and other recently rural, recently developing countries feel pressed to secure the family fortunes by bartering the unwanted burden of a female child for another try at a male, suggest that other countries—even other poor, developing nations—might react differently if differently organized. In much of Africa, for example, children—male and female—are considered such a good that many Africans have strongly resisted Western efforts to reduce their populations through contraceptives and abortion. Without singling out the Indian people because of their particular history and social stresses (how, after all, can we of the abortion-is-just-a-choice West talk?), they offer food for thought about how and why various nations do or do not value individual human beings, and how we should go about correcting our thinking about human worth to prevent or limit such horror stories.
For us, in urbanized and educated “progressive” societies, girls are usually not regarded as more burdensome or less valuable than boys. On the other hand, we are at least as likely to abort unborn children—male and female— because we do not want children at all, or because we want no more than we already have, or because we feel unable to support them, or just because.
Any and all of these are legally acceptable reasons for aborting the child, because our reasons do not factor into the legality of abortion in America. And from the threatened unborn child’s point of view, what practical difference does it make if she never lives to experience life beyond the womb because she is an unwanted girl or for some other reason? Dead is dead.
Again, we Westerners find it shocking that some poorer male-preferencing societies nowadays pursue this preference to the abortion chamber, but we fail to be shocked at where our own preferences for healthy unhandicapped offspring lead us. The prenatal information we chiefly seek to know concerns conditions like spina bifida and Down syndrome. (No doubt many more conditions will be added as we progress in detecting them prenatally.) Again, from the unborn’s point of view, the motivation for being cut from the human herd is irrelevant—dead is dead.
But it is not only human life at its beginnings that is in danger of being judged unwanted. In an increasing number of “advanced” nations—including the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and parts of the United States—the elderly, the handicapped, and those with mortal or chronically painful illnesses can legally end life early.
Of course, once we permit people who judge their lives not worth living to then proceed to the next logical step, we stamp such a choice with society’s seal of approval. And this moves us very close to negative judgments about those in similar circumstances who choose to remain living. We will be inclined to view them as unwise, perhaps even selfish—particularly if this decision to remain living places physical and financial demands upon us. It is natural for those whose feebleness and incapacity drastically reduce their usefulness to those around them to struggle with guilt over “being a burden.” If those around them seem to share this viewpoint, the pressure to turn to assisted suicide can grow overwhelming.
Over the past half-century, our rapidly secularizing Western democracies have denied the inherent value of several classes of human beings, though the foundations for these judgments were laid even earlier (through the propagation of eugenics, for example). However, the slide to assign fluctuating values to human life based on cost, usefulness, and productivity is a recurrent temptation, whether a society grounds its treatment of people on religious beliefs (meaning, historically, Christianity in the West) or some form of secular materialism, hedonism, nature worship, or pantheism.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution created a demand for cheap and relatively unskilled labor. Along with other social changes that made it harder to make a living in rural areas, this drew large numbers to the cities and towns, where many women (who were paid less than men and therefore were often preferred for jobs that did not require physical strength) and children (who could be paid even less, and who, as the most powerless members of society, were least likely to organize or resist ill treatment) were hired for work in the factories. Extremely long hours and unsafe and unhealthy conditions were almost universal. Individual factory owners might be more or less humane than the norm, but the norm was quite low.
Now, it is true that before the last century or so, and persisting even today in poorer or remote parts of the world, even young children had to contribute to the family income in some way. But back when the family drew its living from subsistence farming or fishing or small-scale trades such as cobbler, seamstress, launderer, carpenter, blacksmith, and the like, a young child’s work was commonly for and among family members. Though there have always been abusive parents, a child’s parents were much more likely to love and care for the child than a factory owner with no biological and emotional attachment, and no long-term interest.
Today modern societies rightly pride themselves on having outlawed child labor, installed workplace safety regulations, reduced working hours, and provided safety nets for the elderly and the poor in the form of welfare, Social Security, health provisions such as Medicare and Medicaid, and free schooling through high school. However, in ways we are less likely to notice because of their familiarity, we continue to prioritize the utilitarian-based treatment of people. For example, corporate America has for decades encouraged increasingly greater participation in the labor force of women— which has expanded the labor pool, fueled the growth of the economy, and also kept wages lower than they would otherwise have been if the labor pool had not been expanded.
Now, this is not an argument against the expansion of women into all sectors of the workforce—the outlooks, talents, and contributions of women in all sorts of arenas have enriched our country in many ways. But choices have costs as well as benefits, and one of the obvious costs of this move was to correspondingly shift more and more young children’s daytime hours from home care to daycare. And many women who work at “jobs” rather than “careers” would, if they could afford to do so, prefer to postpone their entry into the workforce while their children are very young.
There are also more nefarious ways in which particular businesses have abused human beings for profit—by stoking addictive behaviors, for example. Perhaps the largest and darkest of these is the enormous online pornography industry, which exploits both those who consume pornography (at increasingly younger ages) and those involved in producing it.
Of course, businesses are more than purveyors of evil: They are also transmitters of great benefits—life-enhancing and life-saving benefits—to humanity. In medicine, communications, transportation, and IT, inventors, entrepreneurs, and the business empires they build up have delivered a seemingly endless flow of goods and services, including many life-saving pharmaceuticals and safety technologies that we would be reluctant to do without. But we already know this—they tell us about it in endless advertising. And nowadays, they also tell us what to think about politics and social issues—and their opinions often don’t track with those of us defending the inherent worth and dignity of the human person.
But the inherent worth of the human person is no late-blooming flower of the Industrial or Technological revolutions—it is at the root of our civilization. Henry Adams (the great-grandson of John Adams) contrasts two great forces at work in the West in a chapter of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, titled “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” He knew the force that Christianity had exerted in the West, but saw it (when he wrote this work at the beginning of the 20th century) as largely spent.
It is not that Europe’s past baptism into the faith (a baptism of immersion that, over many centuries, marinated the faithful into a Christian culture) or the present residual glow of its sinking embers of belief guarantees us moral superiority to our pre-Christian ancestors or to those from other nonreligious backgrounds. In fact, that is the point of the doctrine of Original Sin and humanity’s resultant inborn susceptibility to moral failures.
And that in turn is the point of many of the laws societies enact—to deter us (or, failing that, to punish or temporarily incapacitate us) from doing things some or all of us may at times desire to do, but that society has determined would be harmful to ourselves and others.
In the past, such laws included bans on euthanasia and assisted suicide (as well as laws against suicide in general)—not because, guided by our Christian heritage, everyone could be counted on to react with horror to the very notion of hastening death, but because even with that heritage, fallen human nature would incline some people to judge by utilitarian standards or by a pain-pleasure standard that their own or others’ lives were no longer worth living or were impediments to the quality of life of others.
In our stereotypical images of primitive society, the aged person is deposited on an ice floe to prevent scarce resources from being stretched too thin. The handicapped newborn is exposed to the elements to rid the family of burdensome and unproductive elements. For societies founded upon religions that do not teach the inherent sanctity of human life as created by God, or those grounded in materialistic, communitarian, or utilitarian conceptions of human worth, these and similar practices pose no ethical problems and therefore may not even be regulated by law. So it is a clear indication of how far we Western nations, cradled in Christianity, have departed from our religious roots that abortion has long been legalized in almost all of them.
Still, there is an important distinction between an action that is legal and therefore has been blessed or at least permitted by society, and one that, though illegal, will occur here and there, in difficult circumstances or during temptation. All through the sixteen-plus centuries from Constantine to Roe v. Wade, there have been women in Christian countries who, because of poverty or desertion or other circumstances, aborted a pregnancy or committed infanticide. These abortions did not occur at anything like our current rate, and their existence does not discredit the law against them any more than the existence of thieves or murderers discredits laws against theft and murder. We can expect that a society whose religion teaches a demanding morality will, while experiencing some success in reigning in the behaviors it most strongly condemns, fall short of their complete eradication. In a fallen world, the gap between ideals and actions will always yawn wider than we would like and shock those expecting more from adherents of such a creed.
On the other hand, we cannot say that our own era morally surpasses those before us just because we see less incongruity between our secular values and the behaviors of those formed in them. A lower moral bar will require less effort from those trying to reach it.
People do not like to feel alone in their acts of selfishness, shameful behavior, cowardice, or mediocrity. We naturally wish to regard those who appear to surpass us in heroism, self-sacrifice, and courage as no better than we are. They are hypocrites or their motives are twisted or their self-restraint and heroics are evidence of an unbalanced personality or they pride themselves on being superior to us. And of course these explanations are sometimes true. But virtue, excellence, and courage do exist. As with individuals, so with civilizations and eras. There are markedly better and worse times and places, not just in terms of material progress and scientific innovation (air conditioning, anesthesia, antibiotics, smartphones) and not even in levels of cultural production (the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Dante, Bach), but in moral and spiritual insights and (unfortunately), to a lesser degree, practice.
Human societies without number have engaged in human slavery, from the most primitive tribes enslaving their defeated neighbors to the most sophisticated Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations to the antebellum American South. The presence of what we now confess to be the great stain of slavery is not, unfortunately, the unusual note in history, but a near-universal note. But the admission that it is a great stain, because human beings should not be owned, and the tracing of the reason why humans should not be treated this way to our common human identity as beloved children of our Creator, arose from religion. The full detonation of that realization over great lengths of time took much too long. But over 1800 years of Christian history, it actively irritated the minds of Christians like the grain of sand in the oyster that over time forms a pearl.
Very early in the Christian era pagans remarked, not always positively, on differences they perceived in their Christian neighbors—such as their shrinking from the practice of abortion or infanticide and caring for not only their own sick but for those around them, even during epidemics when doing so imperiled their lives. The pattern of self-sacrificial love was woven into Christianity, however much imperfect individual Christians have rebelled against its practice.
What we see today, however, is something different. It is the result of several centuries of adulteration and dilution of Christian belief. Even among Americans not nowadays identifying their religion as “other” or “none,” it is harder to conduct a conversation about life issues based upon once-common first principles like the inherent worth of the human person. Increasingly, in my experience, debates on life issues that could once be conducted across religious divides founder on materialist or individualistic or emotionally based ethics—or on someone’s unwillingness to “impose their beliefs” on other people. Instead, “That’s my opinion, but everyone has to decide for themselves,” or “People need to do what makes them happy.”
This easygoing individuality coexists today with a brutally conformist morality on particular topics like gender. That’s another area where many of the non-religious and “spiritual” people (as in “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”) refuse even to take up the debating weapons of logical argument.
Thankfully, there are still clusters of people persuaded by and open to logical argument from common principles, even among unbelievers including atheist and agnostic prolifers. But unfortunately they seem in no danger of persuading the mass of atheists, agnostics, “others,” and “nones.” That is no slight to them—Christians and other believers, after all, are experiencing similar difficulties, and both groups find arguments that move only the heart often do not suffice to convince people that the life issues are one area where we should be thinking beyond individual choice.
Way back in the mid-twentieth century, C. S. Lewis noted that in his experience there was little point in trying to persuade a religious nonbeliever or someone whose god was reduced to a vaguely benevolent and permissive deity that premarital sex is wrong. In 1940s Britain, strictures against fornication already seemed senseless outside the orthodox religious framework, just as the religiously disaffected and vaguely spiritual of our own day can’t comprehend injunctions against euthanasia or homosexual marriage. Since the era of the 18th-century Deists, the moral authority of Christianity in the West has been ebbing in these areas, despite periods in which the tide seemed to be turning. Throughout this long recession, atheists and agnostics have repeatedly assured people that the shrinking influence of Christianity in the West need make no difference to the kind or level of morality our secularizing civilization adheres to. “An atheist can be as good a person as a Christian.” And indeed many atheists have led lives at least as good as many Christians. But the larger question, whose answer is perhaps beginning to take recognizable shape, is whether an atheist or agnostic or vapidly “spiritual” or materialist society can be as good—can form people to be as good—as a Christian society, or at least can suffer pangs of conscience at not being better.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus demonstrated his ability to walk on water. What we now wait to see is whether the morally “evolved” nations of the West, having jettisoned their Origin Story in favor of a myth of infinite progress and a consequent abhorrence of the past, can perform the miracle of perambulating in mid-air, unsupported philosophically and ethically by any real foundation of meaning—any explanation of our purpose, our origin and goal, our Creator and Redeemer.
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.