There are only a handful of political/social/cultural movements in American history that labored for 50 years or more to arrive at success. The first was abolition, which procured freedom for slaves but only after a bloody civil war. Next the suffragette movement opened the voting booth to women—half the nation’s population. The 20th-century civil rights movement chipped away the last legal barriers to equality under the law. Today, the pro-life movement, having fought since 1973 to overturn Roe v. Wade, takes its place among these historical triumphs.
Historical perspective is not a big part of modern daily life. The bomb cyclone news cycles and incessant social media posts often make last week seem like a long time ago, let alone the ’70s. Still, as we celebrate the Dobbs victory at the Supreme Court, it is worthwhile to ponder how such an unlikely and scattered movement achieved its foremost goal when just a scant few years ago it seemed impossible.
The victors in this fight, so many of whom didn’t live to see Roe overturned, were a motley crew, a band of lawyers, doctors, politicians, religious, intellectuals, activists, and laymen and laywomen of all stripes who stayed true to a single North Star conviction: that every human being, including those not yet born, had dignity and must be protected. On this there would be no compromise, which, in modern-day America, where accommodation is a virtue, was an aberration.
For much of the 50-year fight, those who opposed abortion could have chosen a third way, an off-ramp from the uphill fight against Roe. Until about a decade ago, most on the other side of this fight took a grave and conciliatory attitude: “Safe, legal, and rare” was their mantra. Some on the pro-life side were tempted to take the target off of Roe, to abandon the political and legal battle and work to make “rare” even more rare. But most held the line on protecting every human life—thank goodness they did so.
Even if we accept that the “safe, legal, rare” argument was made in good faith, we should have known, and many did, that the end result of capitulating to that modest proposal would be a country with no limitations on abortion.
The temptation to give in was strong, perhaps even reasonable, given the slings and arrows, the name-calling and castigation, prolifers endured. How much easier it would have been to say, “While I personally oppose abortion, I won’t tell others what to do.”
But let us not forget that the abolition movement could have compromised on better treatment of slaves without ending the institution, women could have been brought into the political process without being granted the right to vote, and the civil rights movement could have sought accommodation, rather than equality. What kind of country would we live in today had those movements succumbed to the corrupting ease of compromise?
Now, with the Court’s Dobbs decision having erased the morally challenged and wholly invented constitutional right to abortion, the fight to protect the life of the child in the womb continues, state by state, and, more importantly, pregnancy by pregnancy.
The 50-year fight to end Roe holds lessons for us going forward, none more important than the need to maintain single-mindedness. The achievement of every prolifer—famous or unknown, visible or behind-the-scenes—in ending Roe is profound. But there is more to be done, and to learn how to succeed in the future, we need only look to the past. And remember that we do this because every single human life has been blessed with dignity by God.