Just when we thought the federal judiciary had given over its avocation of sorting through the moral questions that surround the issue of abortion, lo, the federal judiciary resumed its avocation of sorting through the moral questions that surround the issue of abortion.
As political controversies go—and the mifepristone flap is a political controversy, make no mistake about it—this one is a lulu; a lulu fraught with deadly consequences for the unborn, as well as for shall we say the moral commonsense of the nation.
The U.S. Supreme Court will have to address and perhaps, in some way, in some manner, some fashion—resolve the issue, though just how is hard at present to see. We are not back to 1973 and the incipience of Roe v. Wade, which is practically as well as theoretically dead, but the politics involved have not lost their fetid odor. We might want to keep our gas masks at the ready.
In two cases involving the Federal Drug Administration’s 23-year-old decision to approve use of a pill—mifepristone—that precipitates abortion, the complexity and perdurability of the abortion mess, so to call it, comes out of present-day shadows and into brilliant light.
No, abortion isn’t a constitutional right—enforced by the federal government—but the idea behind the right hasn’t lifted like Noah’s flood. Individual states, according to local consciences and worldviews, may enforce it, in part by making mifepristone available to prospective mothers.
Hold it right here, said a Texas federal judge—appointed by Donald Trump, as the media reliably inform us—the FDA’s ruling, however long ago it came down, wrongly approved use of the abortion pill.
Hold it yourself, a federal judge in Washington State countered, in essence, 20 minutes later. The FDA’s judgment deserved respect. The judge, as duly noted in the media, was appointed by Barack Obama. If you don’t get the politics of the matter, your eyes aren’t open: Democrats say yes to mifepristone; Republicans say no. Let’s fight it out, huh? The challenge couldn’t be clearer.
With the Supreme Court waiting figuratively in the wings to referee the squabble, we count on 2023 and 2024 as years of vitriolic controversy over the assumptions of the pro-life wing of American life versus those assumptions and views of the pro-choice wing. It will not be edifying. It will not be useful to the ending—if such is intended of our seemingly endless failures to deal with one another as reasonable people. Which perhaps could be because we’re not reasonable in the first place. On the other hand, American history by and large refutes the notion that a common mind on large questions—yes, even on slavery after a time; a rather long time—is beyond the reach of a scrappy people.
The fly in the buttermilk, unless my aging eyes fail me, is politics; or, rather the enthronement of politics and political perspectives as primary in human affairs. When you hang around politicians all the time, or those who live by their words and notions, you quickly get the idea that virtue resides in one brand of politics and unlimited vice in the other brands. You want—grrrrr—to stamp out the bad kinds. You’d rather look at polls than principles.
The politicization of the “choice” issue means you strive to put in power those who promise to work for your cause. It’s warfare—cut, slash, rat-a-tat-tat: sometimes for real.
Roe v. Wade wrested the abortion issue from any semi-peaceable context it might have enjoyed and delivered it into the keeping of judges backed by politicians with specialized views as to what constituents were entitled to do—and as to who, correspondingly, had jolly well better let ’em do as they please.
Abortion as a moral issue—involving obligation to principles and understandings higher than preference alone—too infrequently comes into view in our time: which suggests, in place of guerre à outrance, as we’re accustomed to observing all around us, the need for meetings, frequent ones, of minds and hearts.
We may yet get there once black robes, ear mikes, and cameras retreat even part way from the American scene: a big ask if ever there was one. Meantime, pull out the ear plugs. Hide the children. We live in a nasty time getting nastier by the hour, the minute, the millisecond.
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.