In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII sought to advance the restoration of Christian philosophy against the modern trends of secular philosophy, emerging from Enlightenment rationalism. The critique of modern intellectual errors and the way in which such false thinking manifests itself in the world has deeply shaded my personal reflection on the tragedy of legal abortion.
In the dawn of each new year, pro-life Americans pause to mourn the loss of innocent unborn human life. Every year on January 22nd—the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton to impose unrestricted legal abortion—the pro-life movement recommits itself to the reversal of this tragic Supreme Court decision.
In 1970, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee decided to file a lawsuit to attempt to reform Texas abortion laws; at the time there was no formulaic strategy for liberal lawyers. The ultimate aim was to have the law struck down in its entirety, so the two chose not to base the case on Norma McCorvey’s report that she had been raped. The rape would have been difficult to prove given that there was no police report filed. Even if the Supreme Court ruled in their favor with an emphasis on the rape, at best they could hope to win legal abortion for women in the circumstances of rape.
Weddington and Coffee filed a class action suit on behalf of “Jane Roe” and all other women “similarly situated” (that is, pregnant and seeking an abortion) and they challenged the constitutionality of Texas abortion laws on the broadest possible grounds. This lawsuit, of course, is the infamous Jane Roe et al. v. Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state of Texas appealed its previous loss in a U.S. district court in Dallas. Weddington who argued the national case was aided by a number of liberal lawyers, including lawyers from Planned Parenthood who regarded Roe as the appropriate sequel to Griswold (The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger who opposed abortion was already deceased).
Weddington argued that “pregnancy to a woman can completely disrupt her life.” Many schools in Texas required that a teacher resign if she became pregnant. Employers often forced women to leave their jobs early in pregnancy, and the state provided no unemployment compensation or welfare for them. So Weddington concluded “pregnancy to a woman is perhaps…the most determinative aspect of her life…[and] is a matter which is of such fundamental and basic conern to the woman involved, that she should be allowed to make the choice as to whether to continue or to terminate her pregnancy.”
Weddington added, “The Constitution, as I see it, gives protection to people after birth.”
Jay Floyd defending the Texas law asserted “there is life from the moment of impregnation.” To which, Justice Thurgood Marshall asked, “…do you have scientific data to support that?” Floyd replied that his legal brief began with the development of the human embryo from about seven to nine days after conception.
Marshall, then asked, “Well, what about six days?…This statue clearly goes back to one hour.” It is evident that Marshall saw no basis for the claim that a fetus had full constitutional rights.
In fact, what to any reasonable mind is the most central question was nonchalantly dismissed. There was no “need” to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins…we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.” The state’s interest in protecting “potential” life was not “compelling” until the so-called vague point of “viability.” After that point, the state could prohibit abortion except under the circumstances in which the life or “health” of the mother were in danger. It was within this framework, so to say, that abortion was legalized throughout the nine months of pregnancy.
An understanding of the deeply flawed thinking that created this travesty, I think, is essential for pro-life Americans to convince a majority of their brothers and sisters of the incoherence of supporting abortion as well as its innate injustice. The “right” to legal abortion was advocated behind the smokescreen of a “right to privacy.” Yet one of the most striking things about the “right to privacy” is that no one has a clear idea of what it is. Is this “right” absolute? Surely it cannot be. It would be unreasonable to assert that immoral acts—especially murder—should be legally permitted, or even advocated, so long as they are done in private.
So what precisely does the “right to privacy” entail? In Roe it was said:
The Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas of zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution…only personal rights that can be deemed “fundamental” or “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty”…are included in this guarantee of personal privacy…This right to privacy…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.
It is difficult, if not altogether impossible to determine the understanding of “privacy” that is operative in Roe. Eight years earlier in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court overturned laws prohibiting the use, distribution, and advocacy of contraceptives. The anti-contraceptive laws had never been enforced against married couples or even vendors of contraception—the laws were perceived as hostile to Planned Parenthood, previously known as The American Birth Control League, which was at the time in the business of distributing contraceptives.
The concept of “privacy” is too unclear in Griswold. The Court expressed disapproval at the idea—that no one was advocating—of the law invading the bedroom.
Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship…we deal with a right to privacy older than the Bill of Rights.
No reasonable mind would disagree that most activity of a married couple should be beyond the reach of the law. Yet the law also forbids, for instance, marital rape or the sexual molestation of children even when it happens in the bedroom. The “sacred precincts” in such situations cannot be a place of absolute legal immunity.
Though the Court suggested a sacredness of the bedroom in Griswold, there is no concession to such a thing in Roe, in fact, just the opposite. States could legitimately regulate the practice of abortion within given strictures that did not altogether override a woman’s “right” to choose.
The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Mental and physical wealth may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress…associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases…the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved.
The Court went on further to say:
We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer…In view of all this, we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life…[we] may override the rights of the pregnant woman at stake.
Roe never considers the humanity of the unborn child. Instead, the undefined “right to privacy” receives more attention and is judged to be a matter of greater importance. From then on the atrocity of abortion on demand became the status quo.
Twenty years later in 1992 the issue of abortion came before the Supreme Court again, as pro-life Democratic Governor Robert Casey disputed with Planned Parenthood over Pennsylvania abortion laws. The major tenets of Roe were upheld and the Court repackaged the “right to privacy” in the name of liberty.
[A] woman’s liberty, because they involve personal decisions concerning not only the meaning of procreation but also human responsibility and respect for it. As with abortion, reasonable people will have differences of opinion about these matters. One view is based on such reverence for the wonder of creation that any pregnancy ought to be welcomed and carried to full term no matter how difficult it will be to provide for the child and ensure its well-being. Another is that the inability to provide for the nurture and care of the infant is a cruelty to the child and anguish to the parent. These are intimate views with infinite variations…
The Court went on further to state that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.” Far from saying there is a meaning to life that we are to discover and live in accord with, rather the Court implies that we are free to define, or invent, our own understanding of reality—however false it may be. This stands as one of the greatest enshrinements of relativism in history. The talk of “privacy” and “liberty” merely represents a cover-up for personal autonomy—the right to do whatever one wishes. This cosmic definition of liberty really unveils the unmitigated irrationality of liberalism (Anyone who thinks that he can refuse to pay his taxes based on his own “concept of existence” is in for a rude awakening).
The greater fight for the right-to-life is not merely a legal battle; it is a fight against false ideologies, against cultural vices, and ultimately against injustice. Victory will require courage, consistency, and compassion—a willingness to stand up for the unborn and to stand with pregnant women. Most importantly, it will require a conversion of heart, mind, and will—to not be an agent of any evil that perpetuates abortion, but rather a remedy. A true culture of life will require us all to change.
“The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr: he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age…. It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” – G. K. Chesterton