Disclaimer: I have been very busy the last week and have not had time to properly write, research, or edit this post. However, I’m posting this poor version instead of not posting it at all, in hopes that some people find it interesting. 

This post is a brief discussion of the question, “what should the strong longtermist view of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v Wade be?” Importantly, this is a very different question from the abstract question of “should abortion be legal,” as it takes into account the potential second and third order ramifications of the decision. 

Strong longtermists generally hold non person-affecting views: they believe that our moral priorities lie overwhelmingly in ensuring a flourishing future for generations that do not exist yet. Under such a view, the question of “is abortion murder” is something of a red herring when thinking about the Court’s decision. The recent Supreme Court decision may slightly increase birth rates, which under a total utilitarian framework might be good in the short term (provided the additional births have net positive lives, which isn’t obviously true). 

Under a strong longtermist framework, however, the vast majority of the impact of the decision will come via how it existential risks (and s-risks, etc). 

But how will the court decision affect existential risk? The honest answer is that I have no idea. But here are a couple considerations I can think of:


Why the decision might reduce existential risk:

  1. The pro-life position becoming more prominent could lead to a broadening of the moral circle. If we accept that fetuses, which are humans that are post-conception but pre-birth, have rights and moral worth, perhaps we may begin accepting that future people, which are humans that are pre-conception and pre-birth, have rights and moral worth. Given the rhetoric of the pro-life movement, and its overlap with Republican partisanship (which is correlated with not caring about climate change, which greatly affects future people), this moral circle expansion seems unlikely to me. 
  2.  This decision seems likely to make professional class women extremely angry. This could plausibly lead them to participate in politics more. Women are, in general, more averse to war and conflict than men, so this could reduce the odds of war or other forms of great power conflict, and correspondingly lower the risk of existential catastrophe.
  3. Overturning Roe v. Wade was unpopular with the public, and polls show that the severe abortion restrictions Republicans are pushing are quite unpopular as well. In general, voters are also highly averse to changes to the status quo. This means that abortion becoming a more salient issue as Republicans push significant policy changes will likely help the Democratic party, at least somewhat. Personally, I think that greater electoral success for the Democratic party would reduce existential risk, because Republicans have more erratic, crazier leadership. Given that major longtermist funders like SBF and Dustin Moskovitz have given tens of millions to help Joe Biden and the Democratic party, EA elites seem to agree with this. 

Why the decision might increase existential risk:

  1. One plausible consequence of the curtailment of the right to legal abortion is that women’s participation in politics and other elite professional circles might decrease, rather than increase. This could happen for two reasons. One is that women’s participation in politics may be reduced because the careers of women who can no longer choose to terminate pregnancies are hamstrung by having children. Second, and more broadly, this could happen due to the decision sending a societal message that women are not fully autonomous beings. This could lead to fewer women in elite professional circles via some sort of chilling effect. Since, again, women are less supportive of war than men, this could increase the risk of great power conflict. 
  2. The Court’s decision has contributed to rising tensions in American politics, as well as an increased willingness to violate norms, by politicians on both sides of the aisle. This seems bad. Stable governance strikes me as critical both for managing emerging technologies, and for responding to catastrophic biological risks. Effectively, the Court’s decision increases the temperature and the variance of American politics. The net effects of this are obviously highly uncertain, but my general intuition is that they are more likely to be negative than positive.


Of the bullet points listed above, the two I think are probably most important are:

  • The decision reducing x-risk by helping the Democratic party
  • The decision increasing x-risk by making American politics higher variance and less stable

My gut feeling is probably that the potential improved short term performance of the Democratic isn’t worth the increase in political instability. But that is truly just a gut feeling, and I’d love to hear what others think. I’m also confident that I’m missing other plausible avenues through which the decision could affect x-risk, and since this post is just meant to start a discussion, I’d love to hear folks' thoughts about that as well. 





2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:10 PM
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There may also be a significant secondary effect of subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court becoming more ambitious. For example, already, Clarence Thomas said he thinks rights for same-sex marriage should be targeted. Also, recent cases allowed a redistricting map that disfavors minorities, allowed looser environmental protection, made it easier to carry a gun in New York, and one was considering changing the balance of power within states in favor for republicans with regards to the states' election laws.

So in the case of same-sex marriage rights, there is potential for reduced compassion of people, and in the case of environmental protection, there is reduced appreciation of the longterm future of the planet.

While restricting abortion might cause more compassion for the unborn, compassion for the rights of women might be disregarded. Also, undermining the appreciation of the longterm future of the planet might subtract from any gained compassion for the future.

In my view, it seems like the only thing that will happen for sure is political instability.

An additional longtermist benefit of the decision is that the need to present the case for legal abortion in language that is biologically accurate and understandable to the general public (e.g. by using the word "woman") will improve epistemics among activists and the media. 

Hopefully this effect will extend outside gender to other questions where "progressive" dogma is obviously contrary to reality.