Published May 5, 2022
President Biden has had almost five decades to practice the euphemisms required to defend abortion without sounding like a ghoul. But sometimes he still gets mixed up. Earlier this week, for example, as he reassured reporters that he believes “a woman’s right to choose is fundamental,” Biden made the mistake of making clear that the choice in question is the choice “to abort a child,” which sounds rather monstrous. Because it is.
The context for Biden’s comments was, of course, the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s majority opinion in the case now before the Supreme Court, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The draft opinion, which the Court has since confirmed is authentic, would obliterate Roe v. Wade and send abortion regulations back to the states.
The trick for a politician like Biden is to stick to the words people like (“rights,” “freedom,” “choice”) while avoiding those words that remind people that a young and innocent life is being snuffed out. But even the “nice” words begin to lose their luster if they’re employed too disingenuously for too long. Noble aspirations to freedom and equality become suspect if they can only be bought at such a gruesome price.
It’s madness to believe that equality and freedom of half the human race must necessarily rest on the unfettered right to use lethal force against innocent children. Yet that is Nancy Pelosi’s considered opinion on the matter. Eliminating Roe would be an “abomination,” she warned. “By eviscerating women’s fundamental freedom to full reproductive care, radical Republican-appointed Justices are poised to inflict unthinkable suffering on tens of millions of families.”
Such histrionics are a good indication of just how thoroughly the Alito draft destroys the logic (such as it is) of Roe and Casey. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth this week, serious criticism of Alito’s legal argument from the pro-Roe camp has been conspicuously absent. As has been mentioned countless times this week, the Alito opinion is not final: but the writing is on the wall. And it’s hard not to hope that Roe will soon be struck down.
Overturning Roe, of course, wouldn’t put an end to abortion in this country. As momentous and necessary a victory as it would be, the contest over abortion would move to other battlefields – state legislatures, mostly, but also Congress. The assumption has long been that returning abortion policy to the states would produce a varied – but, on the whole, more moderate – set of abortion policies than were allowed under Roe. This may, in fact, be exactly what happens. But it won’t happen automatically. And it won’t happen without a lot of effort and courage at the local and state levels.
Pro-abortion groups have been long preparing for what comes next. There are already plans in place to transport pregnant women from states with restrictive abortion laws to states with more permissive abortion laws – a sort of “underground railroad” for procuring abortions. There has also been an emphasis on ramping up the availability of mail-order abortion drugs.
Crossing state lines to procure an abortion or shipping abortifacients across state lines makes it certain that the federal government will continue to have a large role to play in restricting (or promoting) abortion. Even if Congress proves unable or unwilling to take direct, substantive action, the executive branch will be central to shaping the rules and regulations around abortion. It’s not implausible to think that, with the Supreme Court out of the business of making federal abortion law, both parties will be tempted to relocate federal abortion policy as much as possible in the executive branch.
It goes without saying that a post-Roe landscape will make it even more urgent to expand programs to provide for mothers and children in difficult situations. The Texas Heartbeat Law, for example, is famous for its prohibition of most abortions and for its unorthodox mode of enforcement. But what was much less widely reported was that the very same bill, which all but shut down the abortion industry in Texas, also increased state benefits for poor moms, expanded Medicaid coverage, and dedicated $100 million dollars annually to its Alternatives to Abortion program.
States that can manage to restrict abortion after Roe falls should absolutely do so, but those states should also be prepared to be as generous as possible in making sure mothers and babies (and dads) have the support they need to make choosing life as easy as possible. As abortion regulation returns to the states, winning the abortion issue on the local and personal level – as demonstrated through actions as much as rhetoric – will become even more politically imperative.
The thousands of existing crisis pregnancy centers around the country do amazing work in this area already. There’s no reason restrictions on abortion can’t be paired with increasing help to those organizations while following Texas’ lead in making public resources available directly to women facing difficult or unwanted pregnancies. It’s both the right thing to do and cuts the legs out from under those pro-abortion critics who insist the pro-life movement stops caring about human dignity as soon as a baby is born.
One final thing for Catholics to consider in a post-Roe landscape: For decades, Roe has defined the legal and political status quo. For decades, too many Catholics have shown a lavish deference to that “settled” status quo. When Roe is gone, God willing, and the judicial logjam is broken, that willingness to sit on the sidelines, to not rock the boat, will immediately cease to be tenable. Breaking the judicial stranglehold on abortion policy will mean ordinary citizens, and local and state legislators, suddenly have greater direct responsibility for defending life – or for directly promoting its destruction. Catholics, including our bishops and pastors, should be prepared for what that means.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Photo: flickr/Gage Skidmore