by Brandon McGinley
Roe v. Wade is an historic stain on the United States of America. Unimaginable evil has been perpetrated under this single judicial decision, which has guaranteed to our nation one of the most “liberal”–to the extent that that word can be used to describe the freedom to take life on a massive scale–abortion legal regimes in the world.
I don’t need to dwell on the numbers. More than 50 million missing Americans. Abortion rates in the poorest communities above 50%. Abortion rates among Black Americans more than three times those of White Americans.
If you’d like to read more about what Roe has wrought, please do read Public Discourse‘s symposium on the 40th anniversary. And for more legal analysis of the decision, especially the uncanny similarities between Roe and the infamous Fugitive Slave Law case, Dred Scott, please check out Prof. Peter Lawler’s article for the Library of Law and Liberty.
And if you’d like some pro-life triumphalism, then I needn’t provide any links, as such sentiment is all over the Internet. The youth of pro-life leaders is disheartening their pro-choice opponents. The “pro-choice” brand has been decimated and now abandoned by abortion industry leader Planned Parenthood. My friend Ryan Anderson provides a good synopsis of why to be happy with pro-life progress and optimistic about the future.
Rather than joining the chorus, though, I’d like to join Pia de Solenni in respectfully sounding a discordant note.
We have lived for 40 years under the tutelage of Roe, and the lesson has been constant: abortion is not to be a political issue. This was the great conceit of Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the widely derided decision, and it was the great hope of the liberal establishment, who declared the issue settled. (It is widely reported, in fact, that the New York Times ran a headline the next day that read “Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue,” though I cannot personally find it.)
Of course, among those of us deeply involved in politics and particularly cultural issues, we understand that nothing of the sort occurred. Indeed, in attempting to settle the issue by removing it from the vicissitudes of politics, the Court supercharged it by making meaningful political compromise, particularly at the state level, all but impossible. But what about those who are outside the ranks of the professionally pro-life or pro-choice?
The lesson of Roe that permeates our culture is that abortion is outside politics because a fundamental right is at stake, but it is not the right to life. For the best articulation of what this is, we have to look closer to home—Planned Parenthood v. Casey(1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It is one of the most infuriating sentences in the history of American jurisprudence, and yet it perfectly encapsulates American post-modernity. Which is to say: it is a perfectly concise articulation of relativism. It is, so Roe and Casey teach us, a fundamental aspect of our liberty to decide for ourselves what constitutes human life. (You can see how modern abortion jurisprudence could be easily confused with pre-Civil War slavery jurisprudence. Paging Justice Taney.) And so the issue in play is far broader than the right to an abortion; it is the right to one’s own individualistic conception of morality and, ultimately, reality.
And herein lies the problem. It is not contested that younger Americans increasingly identify as pro-life. But there is a Roe-sized gap between being personally and politically pro-life. Amid pro-life excitement over Pew’s announcement that 47% of Americans believe that having an abortion is morally unacceptable compared to 13% who believe it is totally acceptable, much more disturbing numbers were released. Sixty-three percent believe that Roe should be upheld (70% in yesterday’s NBC/WSJ poll). And after crunching the Pew crosstab numbers, we can see that 43% of those who believe that abortion is always morally wrong also believe that Roe should be upheld! But this is precisely the lesson of Roe and Casey: one ought not “impose” one’s view of the abortion issue on others.
Even worse, 27% have so fully internalized Roe‘s abortion relativism that they “do not consider abortion a moral issue.” If abortion is “not a moral issue,” then of course government should not unreasonably restrict it. (It is not clear what these 27% of Americans believe constitutes a “moral issue,” if indeed abortion is not one. It is a startling sign of the impoverishment of our moral discourse.)
We know, of course, that dozens of pro-life pieces of legislation have been signed into law across the country over the past few years. Pro-life activists have been extremely effective at nibbling around the edges of Roe and Casey, and these successes should not be trivialized. We cannot know how many lives have been saved by their efforts.
Perhaps even more important culturally, the face of the abortion decision in popular culture has shifted from Bea Arthur in Maude to Ellen Page in Juno. Abortion is no longer a manifestation of women’s empowerment; to see it this way is regarded as passé and tacky at best, and callous at worst. Choosing life is largely regarded as courageous and praiseworthy; abortion is always tragic, even if usually tolerable. These shifts are real and substantial, and have contributed to making our culture marginally more pro-life. And it is shifts such as these that will continue to move hearts and minds to embrace a comprehensive Culture of Life.
But the corrosive influence of Roe remains. As a culture, we are willing to say that it is good for Juno to bring her child to term, and even that she ought to do so; we are not willing to say that it should be a legal requirement. It is the logical chasm of Roe that, distressingly, even the continual scientific proof of the humanity of the unborn cannot bridge. The decision has stunted the moral intelligence of 40 years of Americans.
And so as we mourn the massacre of 50 million innocents–a distinctively American genocide–we also mourn the atrophied moral sensibilities of multiple generations of Americans. For we are able to see what Roe has wrought, and yet we choose it. We choose it because we know no different, yes, but also for far more sinister reasons. We choose it because we value the loss of our own liberty more than we value the loss of someone else’s life. We choose it because relativism is easier than responsibility.
As pro-lifers, we can and will continue to singe the edges of Roe and Casey. But in order to make the United States a truly pro-life nation, we will have to do more–more than even convincing a supermajority to self-identify as pro-life. We need to assault Roe at its relativistic roots: the idea that we are at liberty to define reality, including the boundaries of human life, for ourselves. We need to make the case that living together in society is more about duties and responsibilities, especially to the most vulnerable, than it is about freedom.
Until then, the United States will continue to be one nation under Roe, and the stain of innocent blood will continue to metastasize. And until then, we will deserve nothing less.
(cross-posted at The Family Forum)