Forty-Three Years After Roe, Hope is Alive
By Robert P. George
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I just noticed that the little reflection I wrote on the anniversary of the tragedy of Roe v. Wade has been shared more times than anything else I’ve ever posted. I am grateful to everyone who shared it. The abortion license is continuing to gnaw at the conscience of our nation, as the Republican Ronald Reagan and the Democrat Robert P. Casey, and the saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, told us it would. At some level most Americans—including those who do not yet dare to acknowledge, even to themselves, the justice of the pro-life cause—know that killing the unborn is not the answer. We must love mother and child equally, limitlessly, and unconditionally, and never pit the alleged good of one against the other.
In 1973, seven supremely fallible men in black robes purported to settle the abortion question. Supporters of the abortion license cheered. Pro-life citizens were, they insisted, “on the wrong side of history.” (Sound familiar?) Legal, publicly funded abortion was, they claimed, “enlightened” policy. It was required for women’s equality, reducing the welfare rolls, and “social hygiene.” Resistance was futile. All the young people were for it. Only a few elderly priests and some back woods fundamentalists were still against it. The priests would soon die out and the “fundamentalists” were already marginal. The churches would get on board—several already were as members of the “Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights”—and stay on board. Soon abortion would be integrated fully into American life and no one who mattered would question it. In a few short years, it would no longer be an issue in American politics and most people would forget that it ever was.
But the pro-life movement kept faith with abortion’s tiny victims. In the great civil rights struggle of the post-segregation era, a grassroots movement kept the flame burning and kept hope alive. We refused to abandon the unborn to the “tender mercies”—or women to the ghoulish “compassion”—of the abortionists at Planned Parenthood and the like. We had little support among the wealthy, powerful, and influential. Wall Street hoped we would go away. The media were playing for the other team. The intellectual elites mostly sneered. But janitors and school teachers, factory workers and stay-at-home moms, insurance salesmen and office workers and cashiers at the grocery store, and retired people from all walks of life refused to leave the field. They prayed and protested and counseled on sidewalks in front of the abortion mills. They pounded the marble floors in the legislative chambers. They built pro-life pregnancy centers across the nation to provide material, moral, and spiritual support for our pregnant sisters in need (and so often in fear).
And guess what? Young people came flooding into the movement. Brilliant, courageous, dedicated, determined young men and women. “I survived Roe v. Wade,” they declared, “but Roe v. Wade will not survive me.” And they meant—and mean—it.
In the meantime, science marched on, confirming and reconfirming and reconfirming yet again the biological fact of the humanity of the child in the womb. The anti-scientific posturing about the impossibility of knowing “when life begins” became more and more implausible, to the point that it now sounds ridiculous. And that is for the simple reason that it is ridiculous. Serious, intellectually competent defenders of abortion no longer claim that abortion is not, or cannot be known to be, the violent killing of a human being in utero. And sometimes they reprimand their fellow abortion supporters for continuing to talk such nonsense. Peter Singer, for example, speaks plainly of abortion as the taking of human life and warns those who try to rest the “pro-choice” case on that denial that they are placing their (and his) cause in jeopardy. The late Ronald Dworkin candidly (and accurately, if chillingly) described abortions as “choices for death.” People like Singer and Dworkin want to build the case for abortion on the idea that no one has dignity or a basic right to life merely on the basis of his or her humanity. Merely to be a human being is not enough. To be a person—a creature with worth and interests that count (Singer) and rights (Dworkin), one must acquire or attain other features or qualities. That is, I believe, bad philosophy—and incompatible with the basic principles of our civilization and polity; but at least it does not rely on denying basic facts known to anyone who has taken the trouble to acquaint himself or herself with modern human embryology and developmental biology.
I believe I know how the story ultimately ends. I’ve had a peek at the last page of the book. But that’s a matter of faith. And I cannot predict where we will go in the short to medium or even medium to long term. Not do I have any idea how long the “long-term” will be. I don’t know how long the little corpses will continue to pile up or the hearts of so many other victims of abortion, including (by their own testimony) many women who have sought or submitted to abortions, will continue to be broken. I do not believe that the future is determined or that history has definite trajectories or “sides.” Truth and justice, however, do have sides—right and wrong sides. And we should deeply care about being on the right side, even in circumstances in which there is little ground for hope of success or victory anytime soon. But when it comes to protecting unborn babies and their mothers, we are, thank God, not in such circumstances. Evidence is everywhere that our prayers and efforts are availing. Hearts are turning. Young and old are gaining strength, confidence, and courage. They are committing to the cause, deepening their commitment to the cause, finding their voices.
We shall overcome.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.