Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 82 (April 1998): 60-75.
A quarter century has passed since the Supreme Court struck down the laws of every state in the nation, in the name of a constitutional right to abortion it had just discovered. In Roe v. Wade, the Court prohibited any regulation of abortion in the first trimester, allowed only regulations pertaining to the health of the mother in the second, and mandated that any regulation in the third make an exception for maternal health. In the companion case of Doe v. Bolton, the Court insisted on the broadest definition of healtheconomic, familial, emotional. Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon describes the result as the most radical pro-abortion policy in the democratic world. It permits abortion at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason or for no reason. It has licensed the killing of some thirty-five million members of the human family so far.
The abortion regime was born in lies. In Britain (and in California, pre-Roe), the abortion lobby deceptively promoted legal revisions to allow "therapeutic" abortions and then defined every abortion as "therapeutic." The abortion lobby lied about Jane Roe, claiming her pregnancy resulted from a gang rape. It lied about the number of back-alley abortions. Justice Blackmun relied on fictitious history to argue, in Roe, that abortion had never been a common law crime.
The abortion regime is also sustained by lies. Its supporters constantly lie about the radicalism of Roe: even now, most Americans who "agree with Roe v. Wade" in polls think that it left third-term abortions illegal and restricted second-term abortions. They have lied about the frequency and "medical necessity" of partial-birth abortion. Then there are the euphemisms: "terminating a pregnancy," abortion "providers," "products of conception." "The fetus is only a potential human being"as if it might as easily become an elk. "It should be between a woman and her doctor"the latter an abortionist who has never met the woman before and who has a financial interest in her decision. This movement cannot speak the truth.
Roes supporters said at the time that the widespread availability of abortion would lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, hence less child abuse; it has not. They said that fewer women would die from back-alley abortions; the post-1940s decline in the number of women who died from abortions, the result of antibiotics, actually slowed after Roeprobably because the total number of abortions rose. They said it would reduce illegitimacy and child poverty, predictions that now seem like grim jokes.
Pro-lifers were, alas, more prescient. They claimed the West had started down the slippery slope of a progressive devaluation of human life. After the unborn would come the elderly and the infirmmore burdens to others; more obstacles to others goals; probably better off dead, like "unwanted children." And so now we are debating whether to allow euthanasia, whether to create embryos for experimental purposes, whether to permit the killing of infants about to leave the womb.
And what greater claim on our protection, after all, does that infant have a moment after birth? He still lacks the attributes of "personhood"rationality, autonomy, rich interactionsthat pro-abortion philosophers consider the preconditions of a right to life. The argument boils down to this assertion: If we want to eliminate you and you cannot stop us, we are justified in doing it. Might makes right. Among intellectuals, infanticide is in the first phase of a movement from the unthinkable to the arguable to the debatable to the acceptable.
Everything abortion touches, it corrupts. It has corrupted family life. In the war between the sexes, abortion tilts the playing field toward predatory males, giving them another excuse for abandoning their offspring: She chose to carry the child; let her pay for her choice. Our law now says, in effect, that fatherhood has no meaning, and we are shocked that some men have learned that lesson too well. It has corrupted the Supreme Court, which has protected the abortion license even while tacitly admitting its lack of constitutional grounding. If the courts can invent such a right, unmoored in the text, tradition, or logic of the Constitution, then they can do almost anything; and so they have done. The law on everything from free speech to biotechnology has been distorted to accommodate abortionism. And abortion has deeply corrupted the practice of medicine, transforming healers into killers.
Most of all, perhaps, it has corrupted liberalism. For all its flaws, liberalism could until the early seventies claim a proud history of standing up for the powerless and downtrodden, of expanding the definition of the community for whom we pledge protection, of resisting the idea that might makes right. The Democratic Party has casually abandoned that legacy. Liberals commitment to civil rights, it turns out, ends when the constituency in question can offer neither votes nor revenues.
Abortion-on-demand has, however, also called into being in America a pro-life movement comprising millions of ordinary citizens. Their largely unsung efforts to help pregnant women in distress have prevented countless abortions. And their political witness has helped maintain a pro-life ethic that has stopped millions more. The conversions of conscience have almost all been to the pro-life sideBernard Nathanson, Nat Hentoff, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. The conversions of convenience have mostly gone the other way, mainly, politicians who wanted to get ahead in the Democratic PartyJesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt. The fight against abortion has resulted in unprecedented dialogue and cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, first on moral values and now on theological ones. It has helped transform the Republican Party from a preserve of elite WASPs into a populist and conservative party.
True, few politicians of either partywith honorable exceptions like Henry Hyde, Chris Smith, Jesse Helms, Bob Casey, Charles Canady, and Rick Santorumhave provided leadership in the struggle. Not because opposition to abortion is unpopularthroughout the Roe era, 70 percent of the public has supported laws that would prohibit 90 percent of abortionsbut because politicians, and even more the consultants and journalists and big-money donors to whom they listen, tend to move in elite circles where accepting abortion is de rigueur and pro-life advocacy at best an offense against good taste. Since everyone they know favors legal abortion, they understandably conclude that everyone does. But there is progress even here. The pro-abortion intellectual front is crumbling. Supporters of the license increasingly concede that what they support is, indeed, the taking of human life. Pro-lifers, their convictions rooted in firmer soil, have not had to make reciprocal concessions.
There can be little doubt that, left to the normal workings of democracy, abortion laws would generally be protective of infants in the womb. The main obstacle on our path to a society where every child is welcomed in life and protected in law, then, remains what it has always been: the Supreme Court. There abortionism is well entrenched; and last year the Court appeared to slam the door on the legal possibility of a congressional override of its decisions on abortion or anything else. By defining a practice at odds with our deep and settled moral convictions as part of the fundamental law of the land, the Supreme Court has created a slow-motion constitutional crisis. This is what comes of courting death.