Abortion and the Decline of the United States

Some conservative Christians blame the Roe v. Wade decision for the decline of the United States. They not only pin what they see as the social decline of the nation on the Supreme Court decision, but they also blame it for what they see as the economic decline as well as the loss in international stature.

At the end of the Second World War the United States stood astride the globe as an economic and moral colossus. Our industrial might, our military strength, and our high moral standing saved the world from truly evil forces. We were unrivaled on the world stage. But that seemed to change in the 1960’s, as the culture changed, and as the war in Viet Nam dragged on. But the wheels seemed to truly come off in the early 1970’s.

Roe v. Wade didn’t necessarily create moral degeneration, but it certainly put the government imprimatur on the existing cultural slide. Government may not have created the “anything goes” culture of the 1960’s, but Roe v. Wade was certainly a stamp of approval. Conservatives blame the degraded nature of our society on a wave of immorality and licentiousness that peaked, in their view, with the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

This almost makes sense on a very superficial level. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) was handed down in 1973. That’s the same year that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, and essentially “lost” the war, the first war in U.S. history that the nation lost. The Arab – OPEC – Oil embargo began that same year, which threw the nation into economic turmoil and was the beginning of nearly a decade of economic stagnation and inflation. The sense of change, of loss, was palpable in the early 1970’s, and it hardly seems happenstance that it began after Roe. The rest of the seventies were a pretty nasty time, economically, politically, and culturally. (I know, I was in high school and college then. The clothes alone were enough to make your skin crawl.)

The American economy entered a serious slump starting in the 1970’s, and except for a few good years during the Reagan administration, was in the doldrums until the 1990’s and the Clinton boom. And now it’s back in the doldrums again.

After the loss in Viet Nam, the American dominance of world affairs came to an end. The emotional nadir may have come when a group of scruffy Iranian college students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. American was no longer feared, and barely respected.

Society has changed dramatically in the last forty years, and the culture has become debased and degraded. Women were liberated, there was a sexual revolution, and now movies and music are drenched with sex, and pornography is everywhere. Along with that cultural decline, all social cohesion and a shared sense of purpose are gone. We are divided by more things – cultural, social, economic – than we are bound by. Our politics have decline to the point of near perversity. Our elected officials are corrupt and sleazy, and partisanship is toxic.

In the minds of many social conservatives it all started with Roe v. Wade. Certainly some conservatives date it a decade earlier with the Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools, which began the decade of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But other conservatives date it nearly a decade before that, with the liberal Warren Court and a whole host of liberal civil rights decisions, which set the stage for everything else. (They don’t want to say Brown v. Board of Education because of its shadows of racism, but you can almost hear references to it.)

This is an interesting viewpoint, and there is no doubt that the chronologies match up. Because of this the idea should not simply be dismissed out of hand. But the time line ignores the fact that the rest of the world actually exists. It isn’t just a backdrop for the American drama.

The Arab Oil embargo, for example, was the result of tensions in the Middle East over Israel, and over America’s support for Israel. Yes certainly there is an American element, but the conflict between the Arab nations and Israel go back to the founding of Israel in 1948. It was, and is, a longstanding conflict based on religious and historic tensions that have nothing to do with American domestic policy. The roots of the Iranian Revolution go back at least to the mid-1950’s, when the United States supported the Shah of Iran during the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister.

The supposed “decline” of the American economy, starting in the 1970’s, was a product of the fact that the Asian and European economies were finally and fully rebuilt after World War Two, and were now competing with America on an equal footing. The reality was that the American economy was still growing at a healthy pace in the 1970’s, but much of the developed world had now caught up.The “decline” was in relative terms, not in real terms.

The loss of manufacturing jobs since the 1990s is a product of the rise of automation and the development and implementation of computers, as well as the changes in the Chinese economy, which began in 1978. To blame, for example, the loss of American manufacturing dominance on abortion is to ignore the contributions of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in ushering in the computer revolution, and to assume that Chinese Premier Deng Xioaping decided to allow private ownership of business in China in response to American social policy.

This view seems to presume that the United States is the center of the world, if not the universe, and that other nations only make decisions based on a keen observation of American public policy. This view presupposes that inventors and innovators are either motivated directly or indirectly by changes in the American culture. It’s a surprisingly simplistic and childish view of the world, of the economy, and of international affairs.

This also only works if you agree with the conservative view of American decline. Many of us don’t. Most liberals, in fact, probably think that, all things considered, the nation is in much better shape today than in the 1950’s. Certainly the economy is not growing as it was in the immediate post war period, and not producing blue collar jobs that pay middle class wages, but beyond that, when you look at things like life expectancy, standards of living, and opportunities for all Americans (and not just white men) things are actually pretty good. The world is a much safer, fairer, and saner place. We don’t deny that there are problems, mostly with the economy, but we place the blame for these problems on different things than conservatives. (And some blame conservative economic policy, but that is for another essay.)

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There is a quote misattributed to de Tocqueville that says that “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

This concept, if not these words, underlie a great deal of the desire of the anti-abortion movement to change abortion laws. They believe that abortion is a moral stain on the nation, and even if it did not directly lead to the decline of the nation, it creates a deep moral fissure that must be healed.

The problem with this argument is that it presupposes that abortion is evil, and that it can someone be stopped. But as I noted above, abortion existed even before it was made legal, and making it illegal will not make it stop, it will only make is unsafe, which is a form of evil all its own.

The reality, in my view, is that there are two competing rights: the rights of the living woman to control her life and her body (a thing we might call freedom) and the rights of the unborn person. As noted in a previous essay [here] the unborn person is only a potential person until a certain point in the term of the pregnancy. So we are balancing freedom against potential life. Finding the right balance is in no way an easy task, and I’m not suggest that it is. It is a very difficult decision, but I think that, in the land of the free, we need to defer to freedom. Perhaps that is not a good choice, but it is a realistic choice.