Forty years ago, on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, one of the two worst decisions in its history. The court’s first mega-error, the 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, declared an entire class of human beings beyond the protection of the laws; Roe v. Wade declared another class of human beings, the unborn, beyond legal protection. Dred Scott helped precipitate the Civil War; Roe v. Wade led to a vast expansion of the pro-life movement, the largest movement of social reform in America since the civil rights movement and the natural successor to that effort to repair the lingering damage done by Dred Scott.
The battle to build an America in which every child is protected in law and welcomed in life continues. Forty years after Roe, the pro-life movement can cite at least ten reasons why it may, in time, carry the day.
(1) Abortion has never been accepted as part of mainstream medical practice. Abortion is regarded as tawdry and abortionists are stigmatized by much of the medical establishment.
(2) The science of human reproduction and gestation has confirmed the pro-life position and rendered the “science” of Roe risible.
(3) The sonogram, which permits us to see the results of human conception, has been a cultural game-changer.
(4) The people of the United States have decisively rejected the Supreme Court’s 1992 diktat in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, wherein the court instructed the people to end the abortion debate. With leadership from, among many others, the Catholic bishops of the United States, the people decided that they would not be silenced, and the pro-life movement has grown ever since.
(5) The pro-choice world has always been rigid; it now displays an increasing desperation. Pro-life organizations have worked incrementally to regulate abortion clinics and protect women from butchers like Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell; to mandate informed consent in abortion-decisions and parental consent in the case of minors seeking abortions; and to legislate waiting periods so that women in crisis pregnancies can consider their situation with as much calm as circumstances allow. The pro-choice world has resisted every one of these efforts to create situations of informed choice; it also resisted both a ban on the abortion of late-term fetuses partially born and legal requirements to try to save the lives of children who survive late-term abortions. Indeed, in certain political circles, abortion seems to be regarded as a kind of secular sacrament. This brutality has not gone unnoticed. Neither has the hysteria with which Planned Parenthood attacked the foundation Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
(6) The pro-life movement is getting younger while the pro-“choice” opposition is graying. What really alarms the pro-Roe forces in American politics about the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., is not just the impressive numbers: it’s that the marchers get younger, every year. And that youthful vitality is not limited to one cold January day in the nation’s capital; there are new pro-life organizations among younger physicians and attorneys. All of which suggests that the pro-life movement is American civil society at its robust and self-revitalizing best.
(7) Pro-lifers have had increasing success at the state legislative level in recent years and can anticipate more success in this phase of the battle in the immediate future.
(8) The sheer implausibility of the legal argument in Roe v. Wade has become clearer over time. Few serious legal scholars defend the legal reasoning in Roe, and even honest liberal scholars agree with one of Roe‘s dissenters, Justice Byron White, who labeled the decision an exercise in “raw judicial power.”
(9) The humane service rendered to hundreds of thousands of women in thousands of crisis pregnancy centers across the country has demonstrated, time and again, that the pro-life movement is the party of compassion in this debate.
(10) A 2012 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of the American people self-define as “pro-life.”
So there is reason for a measure of satisfaction, if not exultation, on Roe‘s fortieth anniversary.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.