Based on recent indications from the Supreme Court, conservatives might finally be victorious in their fifty-year battle to overturn Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, the pro-life movement remains unprepared for the post-Roe era. Conservatives have crafted impressive legal, political, and philosophical arguments in support of fetal rights, but many have overlooked abortion’s ties to the sexual revolution. So even if Roe is overturned, the pernicious effect of the 1960s’ sexual morality will continue to exert pressure toward lawful abortion.
To truly succeed, pro-lifers must recall the wisdom found in biblical ideals of sexual virtue and the fundamental good of marriage and family. Orthodox Jewish communities represent how embracing these goods enables flourishing lives that significantly reduce the demand for abortions. Pro-life advocates should reclaim the broad appeal of biblical teachings for the wider culture, especially contemporary feminists who seem uneasy with the outcomes of the 1960s’ embrace of sex positivity.
Abortion and the Sexual Revolution
The pro-choice position isn’t just about the legality of abortion or even feminism. Rather, it is closely tied to the sexual revolution, which normalized sexual relations regardless of marital status. It turned vice into virtue and offered people pleasure without the attachments and responsibility that traditionally came with a spouse and children. It has led to a sexual ethos in which consent is the only criterion for choosing sexual partners.
The Roe justices created new legal rights based on a contorted reading of the Constitution while disregarding common law and precedent, because American culture’s moral ecology behind the law had already dramatically changed. But this new sexual ethic bumped into biology: sex can lead to children, an “inconvenience” for the unmarried that prompted a search for a technical solution. Roe put the legal stamp of approval on the already existing cultural change.
Opposing abortion while maintaining the pleasure and consent morality of the sexual revolution is untenable over time. Unmarried women have more than eight times as many abortions as married women. If Roe is overturned, abortion’s legal status will be determined by each state. And many will allow it. Non-marital sex will still lead to unwanted pregnancies even if contraception is used, since half of the women who get abortions do so after their birth control failed. This creates continuous pressure on individuals to seek abortions and on politicians to legalize it.
At the same time, women in states with restrictive abortion laws will have similar abortion access as before. Planned Parenthood (or some states, as California recently did) will raise millions of dollars to transport pregnant women to California, Illinois, or New York for their abortions. Perhaps woke airlines would donate tickets to the cause. If insurance companies can be pressured into covering unending hormonal treatments and surgeries for transgender individuals, it’s not hard to imagine they will do so with out-of-state abortions. Sure, there will be fewer abortions in Texas, but there will be more in New York.
Since it’s likely that women will still seek to terminate pregnancies after Roe, a more fundamental cultural change is needed to end abortion. The Bible offers a profoundly wise resource in thinking about sex. Though it’s a book of divine revelation, it is deeply consonant with our nature and demonstrates penetrating understanding about the human soul and how to attain happiness—even in matters pertaining to our sexual nature.
Sexual virtue features prominently in Genesis. The book devotes fifteen stories to the morality of sex, and its clear message is that sexual virtue is to be praised while undisciplined sexuality is ruinous and can even destroy society: Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness (3:7), the kidnapping of women for wives prior to the Flood (6:2), Noah’s drunken exposure (9:21), the kidnapping of Sarai in Egypt (12:15), attempted homosexual gang rape in Sodom (19:5) [this is the only specific sin we are told about Sodom], Lot’s incest with his daughters (19:31–38), the kidnapping of Sarah in Gerar (20:2), Rebecca’s being praised for her virtue (24:16), the near kidnapping of Rebecca (26:7, 10), Jacob’s unintentional marriage of Leah (29:23–26), the kidnap and rape of Dina (34:2), Reuben and Bilhah (35:22), Onan wasting his seed (38:9–10), Judah and Tamar (38:15–18), and Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (39:7–12). The covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:10–11) is a defining feature of Abraham’s descendants in Genesis and serves as a continual reminder that sexuality must be channeled.
Further, Genesis promotes marriage and procreation as central to the human condition, and these are some of the first principles found in the Bible. At creation, the Bible charges man “to be fruitful and multiply,” and in the next chapter it asserts that “it is not good for man to be alone,” which directly leads to the mandate that a man should “cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” As Abraham’s descendants grow from a family into a nation, the emphasis on family remains.
Because biblical morality stems from revelation, many unfortunately assume that it teaches unnatural or unreasonable ideas, thus sidelining its practical usefulness. The Bible’s own self-description, however, is that its laws are “wisdom and insight” that promote human life (Deuteronomy 4:6, 4:1, 30:15). It is a book of revelation whose teachings align with human nature, human biology, and the human condition. The Bible guides us to live with how the world works. Its goal is to support human potential and increase human flourishing. Revelation was needed because human history is littered with human reasoning gone awry. Humans can easily delude themselves about what is truly good for them. (We are discussing abortion rights, after all.)
Biblical moral teachings, however, are not scientific laws, like gravity, where consequences are seen immediately in all times and places. Rather, they focus on human psychological, moral, and spiritual health, which demonstrates their truth over time. Think of poor food choices or drug use. These things usually don’t cause immediate harm. But a lifestyle repeating these behaviors catches up with the vast majority of people. Premature death, mental illness, and lowered quality of life eventually emerge. But the effects of specific choices cannot be observed evenly among people. Some individuals even seem immune to consequences of unhealthy choices. When the impact is not seen until decades later, like lung cancer from smoking or heart disease from obesity, these destructive habits have already been learned by the next generation.
Non-marital sexual activity and marriage follow this paradigm. No matter how often liberals and progressives reduce sex to consent and pleasure, human nature is otherwise. And we are suffering deeply from changing our moral norms. Sex is a deeply vulnerable act where we are fully exposed to our partner. Without the commitment of marriage, the subsequent heartbreak, abandonment, and betrayal hurt us and make us more suspicious, jaded, on guard, and frustrated. Almost all human endeavors require trust, and non-marital sex lowers the trust baseline in society.
Beyond that, the sensual pleasure and physical uniting of bodies should be matched by a spiritual and psychological attunement. Otherwise, cognitive dissonance sets in. By its nature, sex is an act that unites, and damages when engaged in otherwise. The Bible promotes the centrality of marriage because humans need companionship and continuity. A Harvard longitudinal study found that close relationships, and specifically marriage, have the greatest impact on human happiness over the long term. Fame and fortune provide a short boost, but not enduring happiness. Happiness correlates with better health and longer life. But the opposite is unfortunately also true. Pre-Covid, loneliness was viewed as one of the biggest public health crises of our time. The United Kingdom even appointed a cabinet minister to find a solution.
The Appeal of Abstinence
The Orthodox Jewish community succeeds in preventing abortions even where it is legal by embracing the Bible’s teachings on abstinence. The largest Orthodox communities happen to be located in the abortion-permissive states of New York, New Jersey, and California, giving Orthodox Jewish women vast abortion freedom. But it is very uncommon for Orthodox women to seek elective abortions to rid themselves of an inconvenient pregnancy.
Heeding the Bible’s wisdom, parents teach the importance of abstinence to their children, and religious teachers instruct it to their students. Jewish parochial schools teach abstinence sex-ed that follows Jewish law, not the safe-sex public-school curriculum. Students learn about the biological and psychological changes that they go through during puberty, and the importance of abstaining from relations until marriage.
For the Orthodox community, abstinence is in the service of marriage. Sex-ed in Orthodox Jewish schools therefore includes the ideals of marriage and family. In fact, building a family constitutes one of the greatest contributions that a person can make to this world. Sexual desire is natural, but only good when channeled in a marriage. Masturbation and pornography are similarly prohibited. Obviously, some Orthodox Jews falter in living up to these ideals, but Orthodox brides and grooms typically remain virgins until their wedding day. And more than 80 percent of Orthodox Jews marry, commonly in their early 20s.
Insights for Today
The biblical paradigm is the basis of Orthodox Judaism’s sexual ethics, and this paradigm leads to flourishing marriages and communities. With this framework in place, there is very little demand for abortions (outside of exceptional cases, most often when an abortion might be needed to save the mother’s life). But it’s obviously quite unlikely that the broader culture will suddenly abandon its sexually permissive attitude and embrace the full rigor (and rewards) of the Bible’s teachings.
Nonetheless, younger people are increasingly dissatisfied with casual hookups and interested in long-term commitment. Feminist scholars and thinkers are finding that consent, modern sexuality’s sole ethical criterion, is not sufficient on its own. Of course, in the foreseeable future, very few (outside of devout religious communities) will embrace abstinence until marriage. But widespread dissatisfaction with the “anything goes” approach to sex could spell renewed interest in restraint, commitment, and even the good of children—all themes and virtues that the Bible displays with wisdom.
If our culture can begin to heed these insights and allow them to take root in people’s approach to their sexual lives, fewer abortions will be “needed.” When children are conceived in loving and committed relationships (ideally, within marriage), the demand for abortion greatly diminishes, as we’ve seen in the Orthodox Jewish community. While the legal end to abortion is a crucial step in creating a pro-life culture, renewing an ethic of chastity, moderation, and reverence in society’s sexual ethos should be conservatives’ next move.