“Put out into the deep: duc in altum!” Barely a generation ago, Saint John Paul II repeatedly invoked this Gospel imperative to prepare the worldwide Church for the third millennium. Now, suddenly, these words take on new meaning for prolifers, who are facing a new era in our efforts to protect the unborn in law and in fact. No matter how Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is decided, the pro-life movement will require a fresh mode of progress.
Jurisprudential experts have already written widely on the U.S. Supreme Court case, and the Human Life Review has attended to it diligently, so I won’t belabor the details here. For my purposes, it suffices to know that because of changes in the makeup of the Court, this is the first case in decades to give prolifers hope that there can be real change in the abortion regime established by Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
With hopes thus raised, one possibility is that prolifers will be disappointed, that is, that the Court will uphold Roe v. Wade and throw out Mississippi’s post-15-week abortion ban. After nearly fifty years of protest against the absurd arguments undergirding Roe, another defeat might tempt many of our colleagues to despair or bitterness. Some might choose to walk away from the pro-life movement, perhaps turning toward an Amish-style spirituality that seeks a measure of justice and peace within its own community, while consigning large portions of public life to Hell. Others, God forbid, might be tempted to radicalize their politics and turn to violence. Prolifers would need to find new ways to support each other in sustaining hopeful and constructive engagement on the national level.
Another possibility is that the abortion regime Roe instituted will be overturned. This would be a great victory for the pro-life movement. But its jurisprudential effect would be to return the question of legalized abortion to the several states—how would the pro-life movement respond?
In states where the horror of abortion is widely recognized, it might become tempting to promote regulation banning abortion but with little or no provision for mothers and their children. We can be sure that the very worst cases would be repeatedly broadcast by the mass media so as to impede the success of the pro-life movement in marginal states, where the population will not so clearly support legal protections for the unborn. And in those marginal states, of course, prolifers will resume the same political struggles as in the past decades, but now largely on the state level.
Meanwhile, in aggressively pro-abortion states, we could expect a vigorous counterreaction, including efforts to facilitate or even reward abortions sought by refugees from other states. Prolifers who reside in such states would face the challenge of mitigating the damage done by their own state’s policies, as well as challenges occasioned by actions taken by other states. Suppose, hypothetically, that with the abolition of Roe, a pro-life state chose to enact legislation perceived to be punitive to women who abort. How would this play in California, where such news would be caricatured and less punishing pro-life efforts elsewhere ignored?
Yet a third possibility is that the Supreme Court will issue a mixed decision, for instance, allowing the Mississippi law to stand while not overturning Roe. This would likely elicit the complications of the first two possibilities while also causing additional confusion and uncertainty.
No matter the outcome at the Supreme Court, prolifers will need to manifest renewed integrity, a deeper sensitivity to the implications of their words and actions in other states, and perhaps a more cautious discipline within their own movement.
Thus the new applicability of the words of Saint John Paul:
Now we must look ahead, we must “put out into the deep,” trusting in Christ’s words: Duc in altum! What we have done this year cannot justify a sense of complacency, and still less should it lead us to relax our commitment. On the contrary, the experiences we have had should inspire in us new energy, and impel us to invest in concrete initiatives the enthusiasm which we have felt. Jesus himself warns us: “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
(Novo millennio ineunte, January 6, 2001)
If our goal is truly the protection of the unborn in law and in fact, then let us resolve always to act accordingly. In defeat or in setback, let us not despair. In victory, let us not gloat or otherwise empower our opponents to reinforce abortion elsewhere. In all things, let us be mindful how the example of our words and our work may bear fruit in establishing and sustaining a civil order where the unborn are welcome.