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Lights and Shadows:
Roe v. Wade’s 48th Anniversary
Richard M. Doerflinger, MA | 21 January 2021
This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.”
- Evangelium Vitae (1995), no. 28
This is how Pope St. John Paul II described the moral crisis of the modern world in his great encyclical on the Gospel of Life. He wrote it 22 years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its infamous decision legalizing abortion nationwide in Roe v. Wade. Another 26 years later, where are the lights and shadows in our country?
Let me begin with shadows, as they are more obvious at the moment.
The pro-abortion movement has abandoned its old emphasis on “freedom of choice,” which could be taken to imply a need to respect those who choose against performing or subsidizing abortion. Now the mantra is that abortion is basic “health care,” and that government must work to maximize “access” to it.
The legal claim is that any restraint on abortion – in fact, any refusal to lend one’s active support to it – is a form of “sex discrimination” that denies equal dignity and opportunity for women. Individuals and organizations who resist should be seen as akin to racists and made to comply with the “equality” agenda.
This ideology is reflected in pending federal legislation like the Equality Act, already approved by the House of Representatives in the last Congress, and the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would empower the U.S. Department of Justice to attack a wide array of modest state laws on abortion that courts have upheld as valid under Roe v. Wade. The new President and Vice-President say they support these bills, and that they want to rescind the Hyde amendment and other laws against federal funding of abortion that have enjoyed strong bipartisan support for over four decades. The new evenly divided Senate, where tie votes will be resolved by the Vice-President, may be willing to go along with this.
Moreover, the recent storming of the Capitol building has provided opportunities for politicians and major media to demonize more conservative voices generally, including large segments of the pro-life movement. For the first time in 48 years, avowedly due to security concerns, the March for Life will not be allowed to take place in Washington D.C.
That is more than enough shadow for one article. What are the lights?
First, the agenda described above is not where the American people are. For many years, Gallup polls have shown that Americans are about equally divided between those who identify themselves as “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Most Americans do not want their tax dollars used for abortion, and most (including some who call themselves “pro-choice”) support laws on informed consent, parental involvement for minors seeking abortions, respect for conscientious objection, safety regulations protecting women from abortion clinics, and even some laws banning abortion (especially late-term abortions).
Last fall, a team led by sociologist Tricia C. Bruce published a lengthy report called "How Americans Understand Abortion," based on in-depth interviews with 217 people with the entire spectrum of views on the issue. Asked to rate their position on a scale from one to ten, some respondents on both sides asked if they could expand the scale. But they all agreed on one thing: Abortion is not a positive good. “Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event, or something they want more of.” The new extremism of the abortion movement, which now celebrates abortion and wants much more of it, is a tremendous opportunity for pro-life advocates to reach out to those who are now conflicted or confused on this issue.
Second, the pro-life movement remains alive and vibrant despite so many efforts to close us down. We see a new generation of young and articulate advocates moving into leadership roles in pro-life organizations. And our movement understands the need to build a culture of life by taking lawmakers and society a step at a time toward full protection for human life.
Third, we now have a Supreme Court and other federal courts more likely to uphold at least some pro-life laws, thanks to appointments by President Trump – whatever his other shortcomings may have been as a chief executive. Equally important, the Court’s new majority seems committed to upholding the religious freedom and rights of conscience of pro-life Americans, as when it invalidated a California law seeking to make pro-life pregnancy aid centers tell women where to obtain abortions. That is especially welcome when we consider that the next Secretary of Health and Human Services may be the California attorney general who vigorously defended that unconstitutional law.
Fourth, the pro-life movement has never been committed to one party or one politician. Our cause is too fundamental to be partisan because it affirms the most basic of all moral commitments: To uphold the dignity of each human life, especially where it is most in need, and to affirm that life is the first of those unalienable rights we have from the moment of our creation. The Democratic party’s leaders in recent years have not only lost their moral compass in this regard but pushed out those who still have one. The Republican party has been an ally on abortion, but many pro-life advocates have worried that it has learned to take us for granted. At a time when these increasingly divided and confused parties are engaged in soul-searching as to what they stand for, pro-life advocates have a renewed opportunity to call them to respect for human life throughout the spectrum of life. Without that right, no other right has meaning.
Do these lights banish the shadows? Far from it. But they are reasons for hope.
Recently I listened to a talk by one of our most perceptive social commentators, Yuval Levin. When asked how optimistic he was about our society’s future, he made an interesting distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, he said, is passive – it assures us that “things will be fine.” Hope is active – it tells us that “there are opportunities for us to make things better.” Pro-life Americans should move forward with hope that we can make things better for the weakest and most defenseless among us, and for the soul of America.
 See J.Calmes, “Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message,” The New York Times, July 29, 2014, p. A14, Advocates Shun ‘Pro-Choice’ to Expand Message - The New York Times (nytimes.com).
 See Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice (July 2019) endorsed by dozens of pro-abortion organizations, Blueprint for Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice (reproblueprint.org).
 R. Doerflinger, “The ‘Equality Act’: Threatening Life and Equality,” The Charlotte Lozier Institute (January 14, 2021), The “Equality Act”: Threatening Life and Equality | Charlotte Lozier Institute.
 R. Doerflinger, “Four reasons a Democratic administration would mean more abortions,” America (September 23, 2020), Four reasons a Democratic administration would mean more abortions | America Magazine.
 Gallup, Abortion (In Depth: Topics A to Z, 2020), Abortion | Gallup Historical Trends; Knights of Columbus, Americans’ Opinions on Abortion (Marist Poll January 2020), Americans’ Opinions on Abortion (kofc.org).
 T. Bruce, How Americans Understand Abortion (McGrath Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame 2020), p. 54, how_americans_understand_abortion_final_7_15_20.pdf.
 National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 585 U.S. __ (2018); R. Doerflinger, “The problem of political theologians,” The Boston Pilot (January 8, 2021), Echoes. The problem of political theologians. Published 1/8/2021 (thebostonpilot.com).
 Y. Levin and R. Douthat, “The Ties That Bind: Recovering Our Social Institutions,” We Belong to Each Other, Winter Conference of the DeNicola Center for Ethics and Culture (University of Notre Dame), January 14, 2021.
Richard M. Doerflinger, MA
Member – Pontifical Academy for Life