The Dobbs ruling will determine the future of American conservatism.
Logging Off for Life
In order to fight abortion, pro-lifers must fight the screen.
Despite the great triumph of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization nearly two years ago, the pro-life movement has been losing ground. According to recent data, in states that haven’t banned abortion, the number of abortions has skyrocketed, more than offsetting the reduced number of abortions in states restricting it. While researchers “estimated that around 465,000 abortions occurred during the first six months of 2020, they estimated that about 511,000 occurred during the same period in 2023.” This doesn’t even include mothers who used the abortion pill, which accounts for more than half of all abortions.
All this should be a wakeup call for those of us who believed that Dobbs was the culmination of many decades of pro-life activism, a decision that would usher in a pro-life era. The hope was that the movement would be galvanized and a majority of states would follow suit and choose life.
Instead, the opposite happened. And to make matters worse, militant pro-abortion extremists have been free to deface, vandalize, and occasionally firebomb pregnancy centers. In the courts, the federal government is giving jail time to pro-lifers who dare to exercise their right to speak out at abortion clinics. Doubtless, whatever momentum there was for saving the unborn was quickly smothered by these forces.
That said, although this lawless intimidation campaign explains why the pro-life movement has stalled out, it doesn’t explain why more women than before are persuaded to abort their children. It’s not like the arguments have changed. Abortion is still murder. The oft-mentioned but extremely rare exceptions—rape, incest, preserving maternal life—never logically justified all abortions. The stale narratives of female empowerment didn’t somehow become compelling and fresh. And the idea of “bodily autonomy” or “my body, my choice” was officially nullified in the effort to push vaccine mandates.
So, if these arguments didn’t change people’s mind on abortion, what did?
Something in our culture changed—specifically, people’s perception of killing an innocent child in the womb. At some point in the past few years, many have decided that an unborn child is not a person and an abortion only amounts to cancelling something undesirable. Moreover, the same moral objections that formerly held some back from taking this action register with fewer people today.
There’s one major factor that can account for such a change: increased time online. Even if internet use was high in prior years, this became much worse after Covid, as people began to use the internet for everything—work, school, shopping, and basic interactions with family and friends. Ever since the Covid lockdowns, the majority of Americans have become utterly dependent on their screens, and quite predictably, their attitudes about key issues have been affected.
Overall, the extra time online has made users shallow and desensitized. As Nicholas Carr argued in both his book The Shallows and the classic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” people who use the internet at all hours of the day will find their mind becoming flattened and scattered: “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” This means that if an argument takes too long or requires any degree of personal reflection, it will have a harder time resonating with people conditioned to learn about the world through memes and short videos.
When it comes to big issues like abortion, the widespread habit of being always online has made people irrational and callous. Nothing about extinguishing a human life is real to them, and the whole thing seems relative. The grave evils of the abortion regime are as impersonal and unchangeable as the recent earthquake in Morocco or the wildfires in Hawaii. Sure, it might be sad, but it’s a distant issue with little bearing on one’s life—even for those considering aborting their own children. And in the unlikely event that a person has moral qualms, these are easily put to rest with ubiquitous pro-abortion online media content that normalizes all of it.
Additionally, the excessive time online has made adults (at least adults of child-bearing age) much less mature, which has direct bearing on their decision to abort. In the past, the usual hypothetical scenario presented by pro-abortion advocates was the bright teenager who made a mistake and now finds her whole future jeopardized by the prospect of early motherhood. Now, a more accurate scenario is a college graduate in her twenties who is nonetheless new at “adulting” and feels generally unprepared to have a child. This feeling can likely be attributed to the fact that she’s spending her days distracting herself on the internet.
In light of this, the pro-life movement will need to change course. It’s not so much about changing hearts and minds as it is about changing habits. Massive marches in the cities, picketing at abortion clinics, and sophisticated pro-life arguments simply don’t reach people anymore—most aren’t even there to see or hear any of it. Rather, pro-lifers today must make a case for adults living offline before they can make a case for babies living in the womb. To this end, they should host events and create institutions that encourage people to disconnect from their devices so that they can reconnect with their own humanity and recover the capacity for cherishing life.
As philosopher Michael Robillard recently argued in The American Mind, “Only by re-inhabiting traditional self-reliant practices, embodied physical skills, and ways of being in the world, both individually and collectively, can prospective leaders recover a sense of the immediate stakes as well as real-world physical consequences connected to our words and our actions.” In order to recognize the stakes of abortion and other great moral matters, our lives need to be reordered around the physical realm. People aren’t made to spend their waking life staring at flitting shadows in the endless virtual caverns of the internet. Over time, it scrambles their moral compass and erodes their thinking.
Naturally, religious communities are already outfitted for this project and should take the lead, but that doesn’t prevent other non-religious organizations to unite with them. After all, the same sentiments that inspire people to protect the unborn also move them to support the arts, conserve wildlife, and help the less fortunate. All this and more is possible, and could even trigger another Great Awakening that would revive a civilization in decline. We just need to log off for a while and tell others to do same.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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