In the twentieth century, transgression outstripped the framework of crime. The maddest dreams of the maddest men of the past could never have conjured up the horrors of modern mass killing—Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Buchenwald. It was in numb recognition of the inability of traditional notions of criminality to encompass such radical transgression that the Allies convened the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in occupied Germany after the war. The details of the Nazi government’s heinous offenses were read into the record, almost as though the trial’s purpose was to preserve for a later time—one that might make sense of such depravity—the bewildering scope of evil that a once civilized nation had unleashed. Often struggling to find words to describe the deeds committed, the prosecution and the justices painstakingly laid out the truth about the wholesale killing and rampage to which the Nazis had given themselves over.
The Nuremberg tribunal was imperfect, to be sure. There were political and legal compromises, and far from all of the Nazi atrocities were put to paper and broadcast to the public. But it was generally understood that some attempt had to be made to reckon with a hatred that went beyond previous bounds. At Nuremberg, the battered conscience of humanity took stock of the profound evil that can invade the human heart.
I have been thinking of the Nuremberg tribunal as I try to understand the recent Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In May, when I read the leaked version of Dobbs, I felt both euphoric and trepidatious. Euphoric, because it seemed the wanton American infanticide of the past five decades might really and truly be over. Trepidatious, because I thought that depriving the baby-killing industry—and its academic, government, and media supporters—of the money and power that came from perpetuating our American holocaust would lead to yet more violence in the streets, maybe even to civil war. Trepidatious also lest Supreme Court justices who appeared ready to join the leaked Dobbs majority should falter, allowing Roe to dig its claws even deeper into the American establishment and psyche.
I still fear the prospect of violence in the streets. Indeed, it has already started—pro-life centers, churches, and other places of light in the dark reaches of Roe have been firebombed and vandalized. God forbid this should go on for another moment. Though I suspect those who are terrorizing peaceful defenders of unborn children care very little for the commandments of God.
But I am much less euphoric about Dobbs than I was just a month ago. Roe is dead, and I thank God I have lived to see its downfall. And, yes, it may be that, as Gerard Bradley writes at First Things, Dobbs can be seen as setting up future court victories that will grant constitutional personhood to all human beings, thus invalidating state laws that sanction abortion.
But still I am troubled. If abortion is the taking of an innocent life, then the answer to fifty years of abortion—to more than 60 million innocent lives stolen for money—is not Dobbs, but Nuremberg. Dobbs remands the question of abortion to the several states, making the democratic process the arbiter of infanticide. Is that a fitting end to the explosion of baby killing in our time? May one say that abortion is allowed so long as there has been a proper referendum on continuing with the killing the innocent?
My answer to both questions is “No.” Dobbs doesn’t produce euphoria in me anymore. It sobers me. There is still a very, very long road ahead. Children continue to be cut into pieces in the United States—legally. While I am glad that the scale of the slaughter has been attenuated, it’s no time for celebrating as long as the scalpels and suction pumps are in action.
What we must do next is face squarely the hatred and death and transgression that have poisoned our national life since 1973. This will require going beyond the Constitution, because Roe wasn’t just unconstitutional; Roe was wrong. It unleashed evil.
At Nuremberg, the world tried to find a way to acknowledge that a great evil had overtaken Europe. With Dobbs, though, my sense is that the full measure of the evil that has contaminated our own country has not been plumbed—that the attempt, in fact, has not yet even been made.