A leaked draft opinion in the Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has prompted reactions that are extreme, ill-informed and sometimes abusive.
We are seeing a “perfect storm” preventing discussion of the opinion on its merits. That storm has at least four causes.
First is our overall political climate. “Polarization” is too nice a word for it. American politics has always seen sharp disagreements. What we have now is mutual contempt: Demonizing one’s opponent comes first, and engagement with opposing views is secondary or absent.
These hair-trigger emotions have been aggravated by our anxiety and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second is the divisiveness of the abortion issue itself, called the “third rail” of American politics even in less fraught times. It is the ultimate clash of human rights claims. If the unborn child is one of us, abortion on demand is unthinkable. If not, it involves a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. It is difficult to find a middle ground.
In 1973, the Court pretended to find that middle ground, acknowledging a legitimate interest in “potential life” in the womb. But it then insisted that abortion for any reason must be allowed up to “viability.”
Even in the last weeks of pregnancy, when a child could survive outside the womb, abortion must be allowed for what a doctor claims is a woman’s “well-being.” By this stroke, the court invalidated abortion laws in all 50 states.
Pro-life advocates have often been more willing than their opponents to seek common ground – proposing that women seeking abortions should be protected by laws ensuring their informed consent and their safety, that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize it or doctors and nurses to provide it, that we should forbid the killing of a partly born living child and respect the child born alive from an attempted abortion.
Abortion advocates have opposed all these measures as attacks on the expansive constitutional “right” to abortion.
Third is ignorance about the Supreme Court’s role. People praise or attack the court for providing results they like or dislike, as though it were a superlegislature to be lobbied. But the justices have lifetime appointments to be free from such pressure, as their task is to faithfully interpret what the Constitution says.
Even legal experts who favor abortion have said that the court’s 1973 abortion decisions invented a new “right” out of thin air. Many Americans who say they support those decisions also favor laws that those decisions make impossible.
And many think the draft Dobbs opinion would ban abortion nationwide, when it would only return the issue to the people and their elected representatives. If I favor abortion, I can vote my convictions, frustrated only by the fact that people who disagree with me can do so as well.
Fourth, the court’s 1973 decisions have been around so long that, tragically, “people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society” relying on abortion.
The court said that in 1992 to justify reaffirming what some justices knew was a deeply flawed decision. The result was more decades in which more people were lulled into believing and acting on a lie.
Helping those women and men to see that a different way of life is possible – one that could involve greater respect for women and children, as well as greater individual and social well-being – is the greatest challenge now for pro-life Americans.
Catholics committed to the equal dignity of each and every member of the human family should be in the forefront of meeting that challenge.
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