Recently The New York Times published an article looking at the potential ramifications of an event that millions of Catholics, evangelicals, and human dignity advocates have been working toward for almost 50 years: the reversal of Roe v. Wade. As you might assume, the article was occasioned by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.
Prior to her tenure as a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the newly appointed Associate Supreme Court Justice had been vocal about her personal opposition to abortion. During her hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, Barrett was asked at numerous points about a newspaper advertisement she had signed which read, “We, the following citizens of Michiana, oppose abortion on demand and defend the right to life from fertilization to natural death. Please continue to pray to end abortion.”
It is well known that the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortions in the first, and in many cases the second trimesters of pregnancy in the United States. Lesser known is the fact that in 1992 the court issued a decision in another case involving abortion, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe’s “essential holding” about a woman’s right to an abortion before viability and established a new basis from which to measure abortion restrictions known as the “undue burden” standard. Though the pro-life movement is more of a mosaic than a monolith in terms of the persons, organizations, and activities of which it is comprised, a common goal that animates the entire movement is the reversal of these two Supreme Court rulings.
The reason for this is simple. According to the Times article, abortions in the United States would almost immediately decrease by roughly 14% if Roe were overturned. That comes out to roughly 100,000 less abortions every year. Or to put it more accurately, it means that a single decision from the Supreme Court has the ability to save 100,000 human lives per year in one fell swoop. By themselves these statistics are staggering, but the reversal of these precedents would represent a major, if preliminary, step in the fight to rid America of the scourge of abortion.
Though the pro-life movement is united in its opposition to Roe, the aims of the movement go far beyond achieving the destruction of this abhorrent legal precedent. If Roe were overturned, abortion would not become illegal across the country. Instead, the authority to restrict or expand access to abortions would once again be determined by individual states. Ten states currently have “trigger laws” on the books that would immediately ban most abortions without Roe in place. Another dozen states are either working toward or likely to pass similar laws to restrict abortions “in a new legal environment.”
In an America after Roe, almost half of the 50 states would likely have protections for unborn human beings secured by law. Even so, under such circumstances the fight to end abortion would shift from a national campaign to targeted efforts to end or further restrict abortions in the remaining states. One of the reasons that the reversal of Roe is so critical is that many states have struggled to implement even the most common sense efforts to reduce the number of abortions because of successful legal challenges to these laws citing Roe and Casey as precedent. As recently as this summer, the Supreme Court blocked a Louisiana law that would have required “abortion providers to meet the same medical standards as all other ambulatory surgical centers, which includes securing admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.”
Beyond making abortion illegal, our goal is to make abortion unthinkable.
The pro-life movement has already made remarkable progress in fighting against abortion at the state level. But as long as Roe remains intact, pro-life laws passed by state legislatures will continue to be subject to legal challenges to prevent their implementation. Pro-life advocates are sometimes criticized for focusing so much attention on achieving a victory at the Supreme Court, but the reality is that the reversal of Roe is essential to the ultimate success of their cause. Short of a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion—presently a near impossibilty—the Supreme Court charting a new course on abortion is the only viable path forward.
Make no mistake, overturning Roe is an absolute necessity for the pro-life movement. But this is not because the aim of the movement is to secure some long-sought legal victory. Instead, it is because the goal of the pro-life movement is to save lives. Since Roe was handed down in 1973, more that 50 million children have been lost to abortion in the United States. Fifty million brothers and sisters and sons and daughters whose names and faces and potential we will never know. It is a tragedy on a scale that is nearly beyond comprehension. In a very real sense, fighting to end Roe is itself an effort to end a culture of death.
In contrast to the bleak reality of abortion is the hope and optimism of the pro-life movement. Rooted in human dignity, the pro-life movement is pro-baby and pro-woman, because the pro-life movement is pro-people. Our aim is to change hearts and minds. Our aim is to support mothers and to ensure families, especially those in difficult situations, receive the care they need and deserve.
Beyond making abortion illegal, our goal is to make abortion unthinkable. But there is no escaping the fact that the reversal of Roe is critical to these efforts. Even if Roe is never overturned, the pro-life movement will never cease fighting to advance the cause of life. But with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the court, there is a renewed sense of hope that now, after almost 50 years, we might see the end of Roe.
May it be so.