Via Meadia has often run stories about how the deep trend in American values isn’t so much toward the left or to the right, but toward a more libertarian, individualistic organization (disorganization, some would say) of our society. The political left sometimes rejoices when this means a shift away from traditional values: gay marriage, feminism, reduced pressure to attend church or get married, decriminalization of marijuana. The right sees these changes as signs of apocalyptic decline, but takes comfort from a generation of increasing support for the deregulation of economic activity and at strong popular opposition to ‘group based’ policies like affirmative action. But overall, the trend is pretty clear: for good and for evil, America is becoming less of a collectivist society. Individuals are becoming more free to make their own choices, and they are making more of their choices for individualist rather than collectivist reasons.
But there is one big exception to the rule of increasing permissiveness: abortion. As this AP report notes, Americans are not only choosing to restrict abortion more tightly, fewer Americans are choosing to have them. Rates of abortion are declining by double digits across the country. This isn’t just true in states that have passed more restrictive laws; it is true in states like New York where access to abortion is largely unrestricted.
There seem to be lots of reasons for this welcome trend, including reductions in the rate of teen pregnancy. A combination of more easily available birth control and a declining social stigma for out of wedlock birth are probably also responsible. But it also seems clear that the moral qualms people have always had about abortion aren’t going away. It’s been more than forty years since Roe v. Wade gave the United States one of the most permissive abortion regimes in the world, and the public seems to be getting less comfortable with that reality as more time goes by.
Ultimately, this may be due to the moral quality of American individualism. At its core, the value Americans place on individual freedom isn’t simply a rationalization for immoral and selfish behavior. There is a deeply moral belief in the transcendent value of the individual human being, uniquely and solely responsible to God and to conscience for his or her choices in life. Social restrictions on the freedom of individuals to choose are suspect; the goal isn’t a society of frightened conformists behaving ‘correctly’ to avoid social pressure. The goal is a society of mature and responsible individuals who freely choose what is good and right.
American individualism is predicated on a deep respect for human life. That respect is great enough to allow people to make choices that look questionable to many and to allow people to live out their own destiny in their own way. But that respect, arising from individual conscience and not mandated by churches or external forces, also applies at least to some degree to the unborn.
As a nation, America is both pro-life and pro-choice. Finding the balance on abortion is very much a work in progress, but the American experiment with unrestricted abortion has raised troubling questions that aren’t going away.