For several decades, as women’s reproductive rights in the United States have come under frequent attack, the New York Times has been a staunch and consistent opponent of attempts to ban or drastically limit access to legal abortion. On 15 April 2014, the Times published an op-ed piece by Thomas B. Edsall titled “Abortion Endures as a Political Tripwire.” The essay expressed support for women’s right to abortion and asked why it is that abortion remains such a hot-button issue while certain other controversies that once seemed explosive — notably, gay marriage — have apparently lost political traction.
Unfortunately, in his efforts to find the answer to this question Edsall settles on an explanation that is peculiar, to say the least. He approvingly quotes two proponents of an evolutionary theory that suggests that vehement opposition to abortion is the inevitable result of (male) human nature. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker and Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing opine that male attempts to limit access to abortion are understandable because, in Edsall’s words, “reproduction is both a core political issue and a core evolutionary one.” In evolutionary terms, males might want to restrict abortion as part of their attempt to, in Pinker’s words, “guarantee paternity, since a cuckolded man is in the worst imaginable evolutionary scenario…”
Edsall appears to have fallen for this bit of pseudoscientific nonsense hook, line, and sinker. Like so many explanations grounded in sociobiology (which proponents now call “evolutionary psychology” in an effort to escape the tarnished reputation of the earlier term), this one fails on historical and cross-cultural grounds.
For one thing, until the 19th century, in most cultures of the world abortion before “quickening” (the first movement of the fetus in the womb at approximately three months gestation) was considered permissible. Indeed, in many places and time periods a woman was not deemed to be pregnant until she announced herself to be so; anything she did before that point to make herself not pregnant (“restore menses” or “restore herself to health” was the way it was often phrased) was her business and hers alone. (I discuss this further in the “A Little Bit Pregnant” chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.) It is bizarre to categorize current opposition to first-trimester abortion as part of the “evolutionary core” of human actions if this supposed core did not manifest itself in any systematic way until the 19th century.
For another thing, the U.S. is virtually unique in the abortion issue being, as Edsall rightly terms it, a “political tripwire.” Certain parts of the world — such as China, Japan, and most of south and southeast Asia, which together hold about half of the world’s population — have liberal abortion laws and no significant anti-abortion movement. In some places that still have restrictive laws on abortion the laws have been greatly liberalized over the last couple of decades (this is true of Mexico and certain South American countries). In Latin America most opposition to abortion has come from the Catholic Church (which, by the way, did not categorically forbid abortion before quickening until 1869) and Protestant fundamentalist organizations based in the U.S.
It is illogical and unscientific to attribute the strength of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. to humanity’s “evolutionary core.” Why would evolution apply only to Americans and not to Asians? For all their good intentions, Edsall and the New York Times are doing a disservice by disseminating junk science. A logical explanation of anti-abortion fanaticism in the U.S. should be based not on biology, but rather on historical, political, and sociological analysis of the peculiarities of American society.
Postscript (added 9 June 2014): After contacting Steven Pinker, my husband Neal learned that his views had not been accurately represented by Mr. Edsall. In Prof. Pinker’s email correspondence with Edsall he had written, “I don’t think there can be an evolutionary explanation of opposition to abortion per se.”
Further postscript (added 4 October 2014): The following quotation from the 2010 book Misframing Men by Michael Kimmel (who is founder and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities) was brought to my attention by Tiffany Lamoreaux:
“Evolutionary psychology is not a natural science, but a social science, which is to say it is an oxymoron. It cannot conform to the canons of a science like physics, in which falsifiability is its chief goal, and replication its chief method. It does not account for variations in its universalizing pronouncements, nor does it offer the most parsimonious explanations. It is speculative theory, often provocative and interesting, but no more than that. It is like–gasp!–sociology. And, as in sociology, there are some practitioners who will do virtually anything to be taken seriously as ‘science,’ despite the fact that individual human beings happily confound all predictions based on aggregate models of behavior.” (page 71)