Abortion: The Unintended Consequence of Shifting Mores on Sex
Over the summer, the Thriving Center of Psychology published an explosive study that found a shift in marriage expectations among Gen Z and millennials. According to the study, two in five young adults (41% of men and 52% of women) think marriage is an outdated tradition. The study also found that 61% of unmarried couples live with their partners. Although these statistics are not altogether surprising for a post-Christian culture, the survey’s findings demonstrate how modern sexual mores represent a significant challenge to the pro-life movement.
Simply put, the values of a post-Christian culture, particularly sexual licentiousness, undermine pro-life efforts to foster a culture that honors life. Hook-up culture has become normalized to the point that the mere suggestion that sex ought to be confined within certain boundaries is mocked as prudish.
Unfortunately, as both history and sociology reveal, when sexual promiscuity is legitimized, abortion follows as a necessary byproduct of sex-on-demand. This is why efforts to foster a culture of life without addressing a society’s underlying sexual ethic are shortsighted; a culture that champions unrestrained libido will always see pregnancy and babies as unwelcome intrusions.
To understand the modern sexual revolution, we must recognize two cultural developments. First, liberalizing attitudes toward sexual behavior were prompted, in part, by the arrival of modern contraceptive technology in the middle of the 20th century. From the 1960s onward, sex and pregnancy were conceptually and practically separated. Whereas potentially conceiving a child had served as a natural deterrent from fornication or extramarital sex, the pill and other contraceptive technologies allowed for seemingly consequence-free sexual activity.
Second, according to the Pew Research Center, 65% of American adults described themselves as Christian in 2019 (a 12% decrease since 2009). In the same period, the percentage of American adults who identify with no religion rose to 26% (a 9% increase since 2009). The rise in religious “nones” is most pronounced among the younger generations. Predictably, as the populace has become progressively nonreligious, values rooted in Christian ethics have been replaced by those informed by expressive individualism and secularism. Today, fewer people hold or even understand Christian convictions on a range of issues, including sexual morality.
Unsurprisingly, as Christian identity has decreased, attitudes toward sexual behavior have become more permissive. Although attitudes among theologically conservative Christians have also shifted in a more permissive direction, studies show that Christians are still much more likely to disapprove of casual sex. For example, a 2020 Pew Research study showed that only 36% of evangelical Protestants approved of casual sex (defined as sex between consenting adults who are not in a committed romantic relationship), while 84% of religiously unaffiliated (including 94% of atheists and 95% of agnostics) said that casual sex is sometimes or always acceptable.
The explosive growth in the religiously unaffiliated population and loosening sexual mores are not incidental; religious “nones” overwhelmingly accept sexual promiscuity and, in terms of behavior and advocacy, are driving the sexual revolution.
In short, advances in contraceptive technology and Christianity’s decreasing cultural influence (alongside other factors such as changes in laws) have contributed to a moral revolution in which gratifying adult sexual desire is seen by many as the highest aim in life. But elevating sexual expression and fulfillment to the level of an unquestioned cultural value has unintended consequences. When the goods of sex are separated — such as pleasure and intimacy — from the context of marriage and pursued as ends in themselves, then the other possible goods of sex, such as children, become unwanted, inconvenient “products of conception” rather than gifts to be received with joy.
Evidence that the perceived sexual needs of adults have been elevated as a dominant cultural value is the ultimately successful push to redefine marriage in the United States. From the dawn of human civilization, societies have rightly understood that a married man and woman are best suited to care for and raise their children. Even ancient societies indifferent to the morality of same-sex behavior recognized the truth that men and women bring different gifts to parenting and that children benefit from being raised by their mother and father. But despite the link between a culture that respects marriage and a stable society, the rights of children were superseded by the emotional and sexual desires of adults.
In closing, the 2023 survey from the Thriving Center of Psychology tells us a great deal about what young American adults believe about marriage, sex, and relationships. The results of the survey also underscore one of the most persistent challenges facing the pro-life movement. A majority of Americans do not have a worldview that confines sexual behavior to marriage. They instead view sexual fulfillment and expression as highest goods, which results in abortion-on-demand continuing to be seen as a necessity. Until these underlying issues are addressed, cultivating a culture that truly values life will remain an uphill struggle.
David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.