Following oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last December, the Supreme Court justices cast their votes, the decision was logged, and the opinion of the Court—along with any concurrences and dissents—is now being written. Experts say it will be handed down in June before the summer recess.
With the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned and the abortion issue going back to the people and their state legislatures, this is a good time to ask: How pro-life am I, really? Given that no state is likely to ban all abortions, how much—or little—abortion am I willing to allow in principle and work for in practice? After all, the Mississippi law that brought us to this juncture bans abortion after 15 weeks, and the Texas heartbeat law after six weeks. Even if a state moved to ban abortion outright, there would likely be exceptions for the life and physical health of the mother. A number of years ago, the theme of the March for Life was something like “Not Even a Little Bit of Abortion”—classic Nellie Gray. How will I, working within the pro-life movement, seek to bring about this goal?
Prolifers have, in a sense, had the cover of Roe these many years. It has been easy to throw our scholarly, legal, and rhetorical weight against the Court-ordered regime of abortion on demand. Most of us have not had to face the struggle, the give-and-take compromises necessary to get laws passed in state legislatures. Those who have sought to restrict abortion at the state level— as in Texas and Mississippi—have taken a measured approach. We may tout favorable public opinion surveys, such as the annual Marist poll, which shows a large majority of Americans, indeed 71 percent, favor significant restrictions on abortion. Yet only 12 percent actually want to ban abortion in all cases. Right now, we claim those who simply wish to restrict abortion as allies. But if Roe is overturned and abortion goes back to the states, how then will we see those who would allow even a little bit, or much more than a little bit, of abortion? Will they be political friends or foes? And what of those who take a scorched-earth approach, seeking to ban abortion at all costs with no exceptions or compromise? Will we seek to temper their zeal for the sake of an incremental legislative strategy; will we be offended when they call us hypocritical weaklings with the blood of babies on our hands because we advocate gradual methods?
No matter how things begin to work out post-Roe, it is clear that some ideological lines will shift and new political alliances will be forged. We may find we have some strange bedfellows. In addition, each one of us will have to revisit the question we thought once settled: How far will I go to achieve an abortion-free America, and how practical is that goal in the first place?
From polling, it would seem that the prudent approach would be to begin with the middle opinion, the 50 percent of Americans who said in the Marist poll that they would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy (22 percent), or to cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life (28 percent). Yet even if we work to move hearts and minds toward greater restrictions, wouldn’t this be a philosophically inconsistent stand for prolifers to take? As we say now to those who oppose us, the method of conception does not change the moral status of the child in the womb, and medical science today rarely faces the dilemma of having to choose between saving the mother or the unborn baby. Yet, from a practical, political standpoint, can prolifers afford to alienate Americans who would oppose Roe yet not go so far as to ban all abortions? After all, even if a state were to enact a total ban, many women would simply travel to a state where abortion was legal in some or all cases. (Then there is the case of ordering abortion pills through the mail: If we know what’s in our neighbor’s mailbox or lying on the front steps, would we be morally justified in removing the package?)
To put the matter plainly, do we—do I—compromise the principle of seeking to outlaw abortion in order to win the support of the 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 percent who would restrict but not ban all abortions? Can I in conscience say I am “personally opposed but . . .”?
I am far from an armchair prolifer, having spent years sidewalk counseling and seen mothers helped and babies born through such efforts. I have marched, written, advocated, persuaded, been spat upon and cursed, shoved and threatened with death. I am also feeling old and somewhat cynical. Lord, forgive me. My heart and mind have always favored the Operation Rescue approach—stop abortion here and now, in this place, with these bodies blocking the entrance. How many abortion clinics are there in America? How many rescuers would be needed to simultaneously shut them all down for one day? And then what? How long could such a monumental effort be sustained?
Yes, I confess that in my graying age, I am leaning toward the view that the activists—God bless them and increase their number—need to learn to work with and understand, or at least tolerate, the slow political process of moving hearts and minds and legislatures and laws toward the pro-life ideal. That is, no more abortion. No more abortion because it is unthinkable in a culture devoted to life and love. No more abortion because there are many thousands of pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and loving open arms waiting to provide a woman safe haven in her time of greatest need.
Please God, in my lifetime.