“Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue”: So declared a front-page New York Times headline the day after the Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision. Of course, as the past forty years have made painfully clear, there is no question less settled in American public life than abortion. But it wouldn’t have seemed that way in the years just after Roe, when public opinion shifted strongly in favor of abortion access.
Day after day, another pro-life public figure—Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton—would have a change of heart and come to embrace abortion on demand. Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being on the wrong side of history. It looked like a losing battle; how easy it would have been just to give up and go home.
But courageous people refused to sit silently.
Academics such as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Thomas Hilgers, and Hadley Arkes developed the philosophical, scientific, and legal arguments that now roll off our tongues so easily. Activists such as Nellie Gray, Mildred Jefferson, and L. Brent Bozell, Jr., organized the marches, advocacy groups, and think tanks that still fuel the pro-life movement.
Statesmen such as Henry Hyde, Ronald Reagan, and Ed Meese pushed for the laws, policies, and nomination criteria that changed our political and legal culture. And at the heart of it all were good shepherds like Pastor (later Father) Richard John Neuhaus, John Cardinal O’Connor, and Francis Schaeffer, nourishing the flock for what, in the final analysis, is a spiritual struggle for the Gospel of Life.
And now, well, the pro-life side has, in a word, won. No, Roe hasn’t been overturned. But can anyone find a law professor who actually defends Roe as good jurisprudence? Even the Supreme Court—in its Casey decision upholding Roe, after two decades of attempted rationalizations—couldn’t bring itself to declare Roe right on the merits. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious moral philosopher who cogently defends abortion without also justifying infanticide.
If the choice is killing newborns up to age two or protecting life in the womb, the pro-life side wins, hands down. Even socially, abortion is on the wane. Hollywood doesn’t celebrate abortion; Juno, Knocked Up, and Bella all celebrate choosing life. “Pro-choicers” can’t even bring themselves to say which choice it is that they affirm; “abortion” has become an ugly utterance.
Last year, Frances Kissling, the pioneering former president of Catholics for Choice, took to the pages of the Washington Post to confess that her side was losing and to plead with her allies to change course before the loss became final:
[Our] arguments may have worked in the 1970s, but today, they are failing us . . . The “pro-choice” brand has eroded considerably. . . . We can no longer pretend the fetus is invisible. . . . It may not have a right to life, and its value may not be equal to that of the pregnant woman, but ending the life of a fetus is not a morally insignificant event.
Studies show that the past few years have set new records for the amount of pro-life legislation at the state level. Thirty-two states since 2010 have passed over 100 pro-life laws. And the latest public opinion polls show the current generation of young adults to be more pro-life than their parents. Forty years after Roe, a majority of Americans identify as pro-life.
There are lessons for us as we continue in this struggle and gear up for new ones. As a young person, I basically inherited pro-life arguments, organizations, and strategies ready-made. New challenges call on my generation to produce the next Grisezs, Grays, and Hydes. No matter what the media, intellectuals, and other elites may tell us, there is no “wrong side of history,” unless people of moral integrity choose to sit idly.
As Fr. Neuhaus (paraphrasing T. S. Eliot) reminded us in one of his last public addresses, “there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.” As he saw it, “To be recruited to the cause of the culture of life is to be recruited for the duration; and there is no end in sight, except to the eyes of faith.”
Just so, and so too for the fights for religious liberty and the protection of marriage. Arguments must be developed, coalitions formed, strategies devised, and witness borne. Witness to the truth matters for its own sake, but persistent, winsome witness also tends to bear good fruit, even if it takes forty years and counting.
Faithful witness also builds community. What started as Christian-Jewish and Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox co-belligerency in a culture war on Roe has developed into real interfaith and ecumenical understanding—fraternity and charity at least as great as any achieved by formal dialogue.
Celebrating four decades of gains, let us pray and plan for many more. For as Fr. Neuhaus reminded us, we must persist—argue and write, advocate and march, vote and repeal and propose, counsel and console—“until every human being created in the image and likeness of God is protected in law and cared for in life.” Until then, “we shall not weary, we shall not rest. And, in this the great human-rights struggle of our time and all times, we shall overcome.”
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The Public Discourse symposium on Roe at 40 features the following six articles; check back each day for the new essay:
Ryan T. Anderson, “On the Fortieth Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: A Public Discourse Symposium”
Elise Italiano, “Forty Years Later: It’s Time for a New Feminism”
Michael New, “Abortion Promises Unfulfilled”
Daniel K. Williams, “The Real Reason to Criticize Roe”
Gerard V. Bradley, “The Paradox of Persons Forty Years After Roe”
Michael Stokes Paulsen, “Abortion and the Constitution in Another Forty Years: A Right to Life for 2053”