Dr. Alice Dreger’s blog is very much worth a read. (Also, her mother sounds like a very cool pro-life feminist!)
Photo by Dylan Lees (copyright 2022, Alice Dreger)

Dr Alice Dreger has a new post on her newsletter called “A Pro-Choicer’s Guide to the Pro-Lifer’s Logic”. It’s the kind of thing we love to see at Minimise, as you can see from the intro:

“As a pro-choicer whose now-elderly parents raised us on abortion picket lines – with my father running for Congress on the Right to Life party line and my mother being a leader in Feminists for Life – I’m here to help be your guide to the minds of the people on the other side.

Why am I bothering? I know it is fashionable to yell slogans at the other side on everything, especially you’re your political tribe feels deeply threatened. I know it feels good to think we understand science or history or law or medicine better than “they” do.

But I also know it is critically important, if you’re going to try to have a positive political effect, to understand the people on the other side. And the difficult fact is that, on a lot of issues of abortion, the people on the other side are coming to very different conclusions from similar values. “[Emphasis mine]

Dreger then, in question-and-answer format, goes through a number of different points of disagreement – about bodily autonomy, feminism, and being “pro-science” – and argues that pro-choicers are often misunderstanding what pro-lifers actually think. Along the way she helpfully deconstructs a number of standard pro-choice straw men. I particularly liked this one:

You think the pro-lifers should recognize that early abortion was, for centuries, utterly uncontroversial?

It’s true that, in the West, abortion was generally considered acceptable before “quickening” (when the fetus was felt to move in the womb). But it’s pretty bizarre to me, as an historian, to hear progressives use this historical argument as a reason why early abortions should be acceptable to conservatives now. There are plenty of other outdated ideas that progressives would never argue should be maintained – like ownership of other persons, the “right” to beat your children senseless, and so on.

If you tell an anti-abortion person that early abortion used to be considered okay, they will just (reasonably) tell you that people also used to think it was fine to burn people at the stake for “wrong” ideas.

The whole thing is very much worth a read. It’s the kind of contribution to the abortion debate that actually helps move it forward: when people genuinely attempt to understand one another, and take the time to address the straw men and misunderstandings on their own side (as Muireann does here) it’s vastly more likely that pro-life and pro-choice people will be able to have real conversations in which minds can change.

All that said, I think the conclusion of Dreger’s piece is wrong, and badly wrong. In the spirit of open dialogue that her post embodies, I want to have a go at saying why I think that – because I think Dreger’s readers could then go even further in terms of understanding pro-lifers. I’ll quote the end of the blog at length:

Many of the values on the abortion-politics spectrum are the same in theory, but interpreted differently in practice. Where do we differ qualitatively?

One key issue: I think consented, pleasurable sex is a perfectly fine thing for any sexually mature person to engage in. Conservative Christians, of course, view sex as only appropriate within the confines of heterosexual marriage where the risk of pregnancy is acceptable (and accepted).

In that sense, their view is qualitatively different from mine because it arises from a worldview that is fundamentally about sex functioning in the service of kinship order and patriarchal homage (including via religious systems) – to the point where they do not want abortions even in the case of rape and incest.

So, the political differences aren’t really about who values bodily autonomy or science or women or babies, because at some reasonable level, people on opposite ends of the abortion debate genuinely (in their hearts) value these things in one way or another. The difference is about how you think about sex – whether you think it is for you and your consenting partner, or (also) for some larger group that controls who has pride and who has shame around sex.

Want abortion to be legal? Work on de-shaming sex, particularly with the next generation.

What’s right about this? Well, it is true that the average pro-lifer is much more likely to subscribe to some kind of conservative or traditional sexual ethics than is the average pro-choicer. 

This, though, does not prove or even suggest that people’s position on sexual ethics is what really explains their attitudes to abortion. Before having a go at thinking about what might be a better explanation, let’s just note how strangely people would have to be thinking for Dreger’s claim to be true by their own lights. Fundamental questions about the moral status of a pre-born child don’t have any necessary connection to any particular claim about sexual ethics. There’s no logical contradiction in taking Dreger’s position that “consented, pleasurable sex is a perfectly fine thing for any sexually mature person to engage in” and also thinking that pre-born children are our moral equals, and that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy doesn’t override their right not to be killed.

If a person sincerely believed the latter two things (that killing a pre-born child was killing a child, and that this was not justified even by a woman’s right to bodily autonomy), wouldn’t it be kind of awful for them to believe that nonetheless abortion was justified because without it commitment-free sex would be a lot more risky? That seems like a terrible reason to endorse what you believe to be killing an innocent person. Even if you think casual sex is morally unproblematic and often good, thinking that free access to it is so important that it justifies killing millions of people would be a bizarre view. 

That can’t possibly be Dreger’s position. So what she must be saying is that people’s views about sexual ethics influence their position on personhood and bodily autonomy questions in a less explicit or direct way. Their views on the latter are completely sincere, but if you look below the surface at what really explains them you’ll find beliefs about sex. Mistakes about sex lead to mistakes about personhood and bodily rights.

Now as I’ve acknowledged above, there is a correlation between being pro-life and having more conservative views about sexuality. One possible reason for this is that something like Dreger’s view is true – that it is beliefs about sexuality that are in the driver’s seat and do the real explanatory work for whether someone is pro-life or pro-choice.

But I think this is a very implausible explanation for the correlation. There seem to me to be two possibilities that are much more likely:

A. People’s religious commitments influence both their views on sexual ethics and their stances on abortion.

There are many more religious pro-lifers than religious pro-choicers, and most major world religions tend to restrict sex to marriage. Christianity is the obvious and the most influential example in the West. Secular pro-lifers are more common than you’d think, but they’re not the majority.

You hear this claim – that it’s religious commitments that really make people pro-life – from pro-choice people quite a lot!

I don’t think it’s a true claim about the best arguments against abortion, or even about the reasons why most people are actually pro-life (see Ciara’s post about how even religious people often rely on secular arguments about abortion and other issues – we don’t tend to think that Martin Luther King had no secular justification for his anti-racist views just because he mostly gave arguments informed by religion). But it definitely describes some people’s primary reasons for being pro-life, and it seems like a much plausible theory than Dreger’s sexual-ethics-come-first one.

Her claim seems to be that most people’s beliefs about sexual ethics (S) explain their position on abortion (A). I’ll put it in a diagram form where an arrow means that the thing the arrow is pointing from “explains” what the arrow is pointing to.

S -> A

Maybe she could accommodate my claim by saying that people’s beliefs about sexual ethics are themselves explained by their religious views (R). In other words

R -> S -> A

Their religious views explain their views about sexuality, which in turn explain their views on abortion. But the more plausible view is surely

S <- R -> A

where people’s religious views about the transcendent significance of human life (or lack thereof) inform their position on abortion, and their religious worldview (or indeed any kind of fundamental worldview) also informs their sexual ethics.  But their religious views do not inform their views on abortion by informing their views on sexuality.

Even though I think this is a much more plausible theory of the correlation between pro-life views and conservative sexual views than Dreger’s, I’m still pretty doubtful about it. That’s because I think pictures like my little arrow diagram above are way too simplistic. The different parts of people’s worldviews interact in complex ways, and as I’m sure Dreger would agree, it’s often very hard to say which sets of beliefs really explain the others.

For example, I am a Catholic and my position on abortion definitely does more work to make Catholicism plausible than my Catholicism does to make my position on abortion plausible. Were I an atheist I would have exactly the same position on abortion as I do now, but were I pro-choice I almost certainly wouldn’t be a Catholic. I think pro-lifers with views like this are quite common.

It’s also the case (or so we think at Minimise) that regardless of the causal explanations for why any individual person has the views they do, the best arguments or justifications for being pro-life stand or fall entirely independently of whether one is religious (and virtually all major pro-life organisations and advocates agree). Even though one’s religious beliefs might well lend further support to one’s pro-life convictions, it’s not support that those convictions need to stand. So even if religious belief was the explanation for the widespread correlation between pro-life views and conservative sexual ethics, that wouldn’t be the right kind of justification for holding any particular view about abortion. Even if most people were pro-life because they were religious, that wouldn’t imply anything about whether I, as an individual, should be pro-life or pro-choice. Given that abortion is a fundamental human-rights question, the question of what I should believe about it is a much more important one than the question of why most people have the beliefs they do.

That seems as good a place as any to look at second plausible explanation for the correlation between being pro-life and having more conservative sexual ethics: the view that’s the exact opposite of Dreger’s.

B. People’s positions on abortion influence their positions on sexual ethics.

Now, as I’ve said there’s no necessary connection between any view on sexual ethics and any view on abortion. Arguments about sex and arguments about the right to life of the unborn and the bodily rights of women are logically independent of one another. 

All that said, I do think it’s easy to see how a pro-life position could lend some pragmatic support to having a more conservative, commitment-based sexual ethics. The way this could work is hinted at earlier in Dreger’s post: 

When I asked my mother once how being anti-abortion is feminist, she looked at me like I was daft but explained her reasoning: if men respected women, women would not need abortions. They would not get pregnant when they could not handle a child, and if they had a child, the father would provide for it. To her, men and their misogyny were the cause of abortions.

An unplanned pregnancy is a difficult thing, and having a child can change your life. If you are convinced by the pro-life position and so believe that abortion is not an option for you, it’s pretty natural that you’d be more cautious about having sex with people with whom you don’t want to raise children. Contraception is not completely risk-free, and having a child with someone makes it likely (in most cases) that they’ll play a big role in the rest of your life. People very reasonably want to choose the parents of their children very carefully! What’s more, there’s the interest of the child to think about. If you think it’s in general good that a child should have a loving relationship with their parents, that gives you some reason to be more cautious about potentially conceiving with a person you have no intention of staying with long term. It also gives you some reason to support social arrangements and scripts that promote this sort of commitment.

Those reasons – for all I’ve said so far – need not be decisive: plenty of pro-lifers do in fact have sex with people they’re not committed to, and not all forms of sex lead to conception. But it’s not hard to see how your views on abortion could lend rational support to views which tied the permissibility of sex to commitment. If pro-lifers are right about abortion, that gives them at least some reasons in favour of a more conservative sexual ethic. If pro-choice people are right about abortion, then at least some of those reasons do not exist, because abortion is a morally legitimate option and the risk of having a child with a person you have sex with is correspondingly lower.

But it’s very hard to see how this would work in reverse. Believing that casual sex is ethically neutral or good doesn’t seem to rationally imply anything about the moral status of pre-born children or about a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. The same is true for thinking that casual sex is bad. Neither position seems to give you good reasons to believe one thing or another about the questions at the heart of the abortion debate.

So if they don’t give you good reasons, then the way in which people’s positions on sexual ethics explain their position on abortion must be through some other way. And I’d just like to hear more from Dreger on what exactly that way is! One very bad way that this could be happening would be motivated reasoning. On the pro-life side, people might so badly want casual sex to be morally bad that they’re inclined to embrace a pro-life position on abortion, that, if it were true, would lend some support to more conservative sexual ethics.

It would be strange if this is what Dreger thought, given her generally very sympathetic read of pro-life people in general. Sure, people engage in motivated reasoning all the time, but in this case isn’t it simpler to think that people hold their beliefs for the reasons they say they do – that they believe (rightly or wrongly) in the equal rights of the pre-born child? That they think there’s no way of having a generally inclusive ethics without including the unborn?

Dreger’s apparent view would also sit uneasily with the moral beliefs revealed by opinion polling: far more people believe that abortion is morally problematic than believe that sex or having a baby outside of marriage is

If Dreger was right about the real explanation for people’s views about abortion, this would also have uncomfortable implications for the pro-choice side. If Dreger is saying that pro-choice people are so committed to the belief that casual sex is good that they are thus more likely to endorse a view of abortion that makes that belief more tenable, then that seems to be imputing very bad reasoning to people who hold her view. Whatever the merits of this as a descriptive matter, it seems very strange to pursue it as a strategy: and yet Dreger ends her piece by saying “Want abortion to be legal? Work on de-shaming sex, particularly with the next generation.” So she must mean something else. The question is, what?