You think you know. In fact, much of the time, you don’t, nor can you. Life in the 21st century is harder to unscramble than an omelet.
The U.S. Supreme Court stretches out its arm to undo a predecessor Court’s imposition, half a century ago, of a national policy of official indifference to unborn life: Maybe a good thing, maybe not so good, figure it out for yourself. Exit that novel policy, as of June 2022—to the gratification of unborn life’s unrelenting friends and advocates, and, it follows, to the benefit of countless unborn lives exposed to that same indifference. Cue the bottle rockets and Roman candles. Whoopee! Hooray!
Then the nervousness commences, and the feeling that something’s still not right around here. What could it be? It could be, and is, the feeling that large numbers of Americans, despite the Court’s probing rationality in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, are as mixed and muddled in their thinking about abortion as was the case, say, a dozen years ago. We seem as a nation, as a people, to desire a little of this and a little of that: not wholesale permission to abort and not a wholesale prohibition either.
Mental and moral confusion is the Roe Court’s so-far-enduring legacy.
If too few—as yet, according to polls—feel able to recommend a satisfactory exit from the abortion briar patch, that could be for two reasons: 1) the dishonesty inherent in the politicizing and judicializing, since 1973, of a moral question existing at humanity’s foundational level; and 2) the resultant feeling that abortion, being “political” in the contemporary sense, is a matter—yes—of personal choice: MAGA vs. progressivism, carbon-based fuels vs. offshore wind power; that sort of thing.
In politics you pick your friends and foes as often as not for interior reasons, unrelated mostly to the large questions of existence. Who yells the loudest, organizes the most people, has the most voluble presence in social media— such are the main considerations that drive political arrangements in 2022.
What’s on, I beg to guess, is a challenge waiting to be grasped. It has not been grasped yet—not firmly enough by any parties to the swirling complexities of the post-Roe moral and political order. The land cannot be said yet to lie in favor of the pro-life movement, whose refusal ever to give up led to the overthrow of Roe. Nor can that same land be said to lie in favor of those who continue to assert, with practiced skill, the preeminence of a woman’s right to say what goes on with her body.
We cannot yet know the ways, and they are likely various, in which this matter is going to end up. One would think anyway, when so much has been won on behalf of unborn life, that it would be, let’s just say misguided, to despair that no complete and final victory is in sight.
There’s room for discouragement, to be sure. Take Kansas, and its voters’ rejection, August 2, of an amendment which would have overturned a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision that discovered a right to abortion in the state’s 161-year-old constitution. Take the victory of pro-choice Democrat Pat Ryan August 23 in a special House election in New York, where, according to Ryan, “Choice was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won.” The boastful language of other “reproductive freedom” advocates doesn’t help a lot either. Democratic strategist Tom Bonior writes in the New York Times of how in his 28 years of analyzing elections, he’s never seen the like of women’s—pro-choice women’s—response to the Dobbs decision. “Women are registering to vote in numbers I’ve never witnessed,” he declares. “I’ve run out of superlatives to describe how different this moment is.” Democrats, to enflesh his vision, could upend early Republican expectations of taking back Congress in this midterm cycle featuring widespread voter disaffection from progressive headship. As Iowa Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia Axne wrote in the Des Moines Register: “Reproductive rights and the health care rights of women are on the ballot this November.”
There’s no reason or right to suppose that Justice Samuel Alito’s incisive logic and clarity as he spoke for the Court’s 6-3 majority in Dobbs rendered abortion rights as quaint as a quilting party. Heated and costly struggles lie ahead. This expectation touches not only the overthrow of the Roe Court’s misbegotten venture into Social Justiceland, but equally the dislocations that mission put immediately in play.
A 21st-century democracy is ill-prepared to grapple with a profoundly moral question: for that matter, with the range of moral questions playing themselves out in social media and politics, such as transgender rights, affirmative action, and the use of guns. In a moral debate, you need moral premises. A plebiscite or referendum won’t get the job done. Neither will a brilliantly crafted constitutional exposition. I have long suspected that the vast majority of people who follow the Court care more what side the justices come down on than they care about the Court’s power of reasoning. (I have noticed the scandalous tendency even in myself, if you can imagine such a thing!)
Ross Douthat, in a New York Times column titled “The New Politics of Abortion,” sums it up: With Roe out of the way, “the pro-life movement now has to adapt to the democratic contest that it sought.” Like it or not, “you have to deal with public opinion as it actually exists.” That would include opinions such as Nancy Rommelmann, writing for Bari Weiss’s “Common Sense” online newsletter, elicited on a post-election trip to Kansas. Mike Roggero, a Trump voter in 2016, and a “no” voter on the amendment question, said to her, “I would probably never get an abortion if I was a woman, or ask my significant other to have an abortion, but I believe that it is their right to do it. I am a Republican but very much on the fence now and leaning more independent.” Likewise Artie Scholes, taking his own stand for personal choice: “I think some of those [“no” votes] are gun people. Like, ‘I don’t want you to take my gun. I’m not going to tell you what to do with your body.’” Live and let die, to play off the Ian Fleming title.
William A. Galston, in the Wall Street Journal, highlighted the complexities of the matter: “Most voters accept abortion in some circumstances but not others, and candidates who appear dogmatic or extreme will pay a price at the polls. By a margin of 25 points, voters favor protections for abortion in their state constitutions—a position backed by most demographic groups and even by one-third of Republicans.”
Which leaves us . . . where? No further along in the protection of unborn life than before the U.S. Supreme Court at last told the truth about Roe v. Wade? The legal/constitutional truth, I mean? That Roe—to wit—was an “egregious” decision, inviting dismissal from the constitutional order, as pretending to show us, and enforce the consequences of showing, a right that Roe’s 7-2 majority had dreamed up?
I think we need quickly to rid ourselves of the notion that, whatever the outcome in Kansas, the overthrow of Roe, in Dobbs, was a case equivalent to that of the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing. It was no such thing.
Dobbs was the precondition of our coming at last to grips, as a nation, as a culture, with the immensity of the right-to-life question. Dobbs summons us to look around, as did Alec Guinness, in the catastrophic final scene of The Bridge on the River Kwai, upon the consequences of moral miscalculation. Brought to his senses by the sudden knowledge of his responsibility for an unplanned, unforeseen debacle, Guinness’s stiff-upper-lip British officer character says in bewilderment: “What have I done?”
There is no profounder question to ask in the context of moral restoration. What have I done? What have we done? Then: What do we do about it?
Who under the sun could expect a panel of jurists, howsoever eminent, to provide the answers? The answers will be a long time in coming. And I hate to mention it, but they may never be clear as day. On the other hand, the time to start sorting through the evidence, some of which we may not yet have at hand, is the time we are living in.
Dobbs, despite widespread misunderstanding, encouraged I can only suppose by some opponents of the decision, didn’t outlaw abortion; it left abortion policy to the decision of the voters of every state. The national policy Roe was supposed to establish went away. We went back to basics. The people of each state—including the people of Kansas—could establish their own policies: pro, con, or, just as often, mixed, ambiguous, uncertain.
Dobbs thus restored what we could call the status quo ante bellum—the condition of things before the war that the Court precipitated by canceling state abortion laws seen as compromising a woman’s “right” to bodily autonomy. It is a perverse way of viewing things. The pre-Roe abortion laws were enacted, I am guessing, out of the vision range of most voters, and with other agendas in mind, such as protecting women from those now-famous back-alley butchers. Women’s 14th-Amendment rights were not at issue. Legislators can have worried little about political backlash when they passed laws that, broadly speaking, gave unborn life the stature it had enjoyed since early Christian times. That the unborn were really persons in their own right, ready to join the rest of us persons upon their emergence from the womb, was hardly a troublesome point, from a political standpoint. Feelings of responsibility for their protection shielded the great majority of the unborn.
Not so now. It’s half a century since Justice Harry Blackmun, with the backing of six male colleagues, proclaimed the new, supposedly enlightened version of what women were due in the society of the 20th century—namely, personal latitude, personal choice un-dependent on the views of others, especially male others. A multitude of women, over the past half-century, have grown very accustomed, thank you, to the opportunities of deciding this or that, in an atmosphere of freedom such as their mothers or grandmothers, certainly their great-grandmothers, could never have imagined.
Meanwhile, moral codes binding on persons of both sexes have eroded. The idea of duties owed God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible (as the Nicene Creed cogently put it) collides with more appealing ideas—duties we owe ourselves, delights just waiting for us to experience. With no one allowed to get in our way. Got that? No one!
Shall we back off a bit for a running start? We need to consider as a society, as a people, the question of whether our premises—the notions and understandings by which we live—are valid or whether, having grown outdated, they can go out with the trash. We think the politics of the moment matter more than anything else. Thus we have to take over Congress! We have to
throw out the bums now in control so as to install new bums who will pass better laws and enact more wholesome regulations. We hope . . .
I think we think this way because our political and governmental assumptions have led us to think thus. Political power is power over others, and if we use that power adroitly, we will surely have our way, and the nation will be saved; and maybe more unborn children will emerge intact from the womb. More? That’s the best we can do? What about all?
“All” isn’t envisioned in what a noted ex-president has called the art of the deal. A deal, in democratic political terms, is some for me, some for you, in proportion as I or you bring to bear more shrewdness or plain old-fashioned power. I make no argument against democratic politics, which are more wholesome any day in the week than authoritarian politics. I argue only against staking deeply moral outcomes on the numbers spewed out by voting machines or tallied by a sergeant at arms; reflective as they are of emotions, deals, and perpetually shifting alliances. Not to mention, vide 2022, personalities of one kind and another!
There probably is no better short-run way of dealing with the post-Roe world than that of making the most—as Ross Douthat suggests—of the hand that world has dealt. That would mean accepting the realities of democratic politics, and framing immediate political measures in terms of those realities—all the while driving home, in discourse of every kind, the immemorial idea of moral reality as preeminent: right above wrong, truth above falsehood and deceit.
There is much, in our time, to be taught about moral truth. There is much necessary to re-learn. We have forgotten much over recent years. The room is dark. For God’s sake, would someone put the lights back on?! Would someone at the very least locate a match or two?
No one can know whether and to what extent the moral understandings of a century ago, and earlier—with their emphasis on human duty and responsibility, as opposed to personal fulfillment—can successfully be restored. But it seems plain the effort must commence without delay. What people believe they should do—because it is the right thing to do—is a consideration more powerful than what the government tells them to do, on whatever grounds.
The pro-life cause in the 21st century consists in continuing, against hardship and rebuke—including political rebuke—to proclaim the moral worthiness of life yet unborn. That a Court or a Congress might buy into such a duty is logically consequent upon the nation’s antecedent understanding of duty and love, and its attachment to those virtues.
We are not there, when it comes to abortion, nor anyplace close. Not yet.
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.