Roe Plus Forty: Where Now?

Body: 

January 25, 2012

David T. Koyzis 

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade, which effectively invalidated the 50 states’ abortion laws, asserting for the first time a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. Although the court undoubtedly saw itself settling a contentious issue for a divided polity, we know now that Roe did nothing of the sort. Instead, it only increased the divisive nature of the issue, further polarizing a population into pro-choice and pro-life factions, each of which has taken apparently irreconcilable positions.

Earlier this month TIME Magazine carried a cover story whose author argues that, since the Roe ruling, the pro-choice side has been gradually losing the battle for abortion rights. Why? Physicians are less willing to perform abortions, and pro-lifers have succeeded in persuading their respective state legislatures to tighten up restrictions on the practice, which effectively places hurdles in the way of those who would procure the procedure. Some of these have a primarily psychological deterrent effect, such as requiring the mother to have an ultrasound of the child, thereby impressing on her the reality of the human life growing in the womb. There may also be something to the observation that, because pro-lifers have more children, their beliefs have a certain demographic advantage over those of pro-choicers. For these and other reasons, pro-lifers have reason to think that their long-term prospects are bright, even in the current absence of a sympathetic political climate in the highest places.

What about the short term? In the immediate future, a law protecting life in the womb is almost certainly not in the cards. So what can we do? We must try to change as many hearts as we can on the issue. Here are some guidelines:

First, we always do well to assume that our pro-choice opponents are people of good will who love their families and genuinely care for the welfare of their communities. It will not do for pro-lifers to vilify those on the other side of the issue, a perennial temptation for anyone viewing the struggle in stark apocalyptic terms and focusing on the legislative battle. Those taking a pro-choice position do not hate babies; rather, they see themselves having a heart for vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. We need to build on this sympathy, making a case that it should be extended to the vulnerable child in the womb as well.

Second, those of us who can speak from experience should do so, and in such a way as to open, rather than to close, the lines of communication. Although I personally have no experience with abortion, my wife and I do have experience with an early birth. Our daughter was born 14 weeks premature nearly a decade and a half ago, weighing in at just over 2 pounds and spending her first 10 and a half weeks in two area hospital neonatal intensive care units. During this difficult time we quickly discovered that our daughter would smile briefly when she was content. It did not take much to convince us that, if she could smile at such a young age, then fetuses, who are more than just inert tissue, must surely smile in the womb. Several years later our suspicions were confirmed by a British study which discovered as much through 3-D/4-D ultrasound imaging. We were struck by the sheer incongruity between our daughter possessing the legal status of personhood outside the womb, where she should not yet have been, and her lack of such status if she had remained in the womb the full nine months.

Third, as useful as such technology can be to the pro-life cause, we cannot assume that science has proved or will prove the humanity of the fetus, as if science were capable by itself of resolving the controversy to everyone’s satisfaction. Many people on the pro-choice side admit that the fetus is human. Yet this admission is insufficient to move them to the pro-life side. We need, instead, to emphasize the responsibility that new life places on us with respect to nurture and care, a responsibility that we dare not evade by trying to eliminate a life that seems momentarily inconvenient.

Fourth and finally, despite the seemingly intractable differences between pro-life and pro-choice citizens, the ordinary imperatives of day-to-day governance will not go away and will require the cooperation of everyone, whatever their position on abortion, in a variety of other areas. Given this reality, we must all be prepared to collaborate on those issues where agreement is possible, while continuing as best we can to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God, for which he is seeking a publisher.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.