BY FRED EVERETT Forty years provides us with a fitting period in which to look back and see from where we have come, where we are now, and where we are going. Forty years ago this very week, the Supreme Court of United States handed down its infamous Roe v. Wade decision that shook the nation then and roils our political debate to this day. It was a 7-2 decision that baldly asserted that the Constitution of the United States implicitly provides a right to privacy that also implicitly includes a right to abortion at any stage of pregnancy and for virtually any reason.
Despite the fact that abortion is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, seven justices decided to impose their own values and beliefs upon the people of this country by using the judicial system in a way that it was never intended to function. While there is no evidence to suggest that these justices did not believe that they were serving a greater good, it was not the first nor would it be the last time that those bearing the public trust would justify their actions by that great lie that sometimes good ends justify dishonest means.
Of course, the imposition of a regime of abortion on demand upon all 50 states was not a greater good. It was an evil of almost unfathomable dimensions, as is evidenced by the fact that over 55 million innocent lives have since been taken. Did those seven justices realize the magnitude of the horror that they had imposed upon our country? I surely hope not. Nevertheless, the judicial imposition of abortion on demand has had a clearly corrosive effect on our political institutions and has poisoned our national dialogue.
It is interesting to note that on Jan. 24, 1973, the New York Times wrote an editorial expressing its approval of the Roe v. Wade decision. It incorrectly stated that the decision had only legalized abortion in the first trimester. This is one of those common myths that continue to this day. The editorial also expressed the hope that this decision would now settle the political debate so that the public could now focus on other important and pressing issues. This would not be the last time that the editorial board of this venerable institution would miss the mark so widely. Seven justices did not resolve the issue 40 years ago, and it is still not resolved today.
Still, there is no question that the Church, which is at the heart of the pro-life movement here and around the world, has not been able to overturn that decision and return to what was the state of the law in Indiana and in most states of the union. What was the state of the law 40 years ago in Indiana the day prior to Roe v. Wade being handed down? Abortion was illegal except in the very rare circumstance where the life of the mother was at stake. Period. It was not legal because a mother simply preferred not to be pregnant. It was not legal in cases of fetal deformity. It was not even legal in cases of rape or incest. Abortion was widely recognized not as a routine medical procedure, but only as a last resort in cases of necessity.
America has changed in the past 40 years and not altogether for the better. While the Church’s identity and mission have become clearer and stronger in this period, the culture has become more secular and materialistic. Once we might have thought that were the Supreme Court decision to be overturned, abortion would surely go back to being largely restricted. Today, were the decision overturned, there would likely be very few, if any, states that would restrict the practice only to those cases where the life of the mother was at stake. According to national polls, just a fifth of the public would now support that position.
The fact is that a majority of Americans has come to embrace the practice of abortion to varying degrees. Some want to limit it to the hard cases of rape, incest and fetal deformity. Others would expand it to the entire first trimester — where the great majority of abortions occur. More than a fifth of our fellow Americans support abortion for any reason and at any stage of pregnancy — including during the birth of a child.
To get an idea of where we are heading as a nation, it is helpful to look at the values and beliefs of our young adults. While surveys over the past few years show indications of a growing pro-life sentiment among young adults — a designation that in fact makes them the most pro-life age group — other trends are not so positive.
In a number of recent groundbreaking studies, young adults have been shown to be particularly ambivalent about imposing their values on others. Most do not believe that there are objective right and wrong actions that apply to everyone. Even among those who believe that objective right and wrong do exist, they often feel ambivalent about imposing their own values and beliefs on others, especially those from other cultures. Today’s young people, as a whole, are characterized by a very individualistic and relativistic morality, by a consumerist approach to life that minimizes the importance of helping others, and by a reluctance to become involved in political and civic affairs. Such attitudes do not bode well for the future of our nation, let alone the future of the pro-life movement.
To begin to formulate an answer to what we need to do now, we need to recognize that abortion is but a symptom of a larger and much deeper problem. The increasingly prevalent idea of freedom as the ability to do and to get what we want is a perverse idea of freedom. True freedom, as Blessed John Paul II would continually remind us, is the ability to do and to give what we ought. As the Holy Father wrote in his great encyclical, “Evangelium vitae”: “In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death,’ we cannot restrict ourselves to the perverse idea of freedom mentioned above. We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test. Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a sad vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; in turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect for human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God’s living and saving presence.”
Despite the pro-life movement’s successes in providing direct services and saving lives through excellent agencies such as the Women’s Care Center; despite the passage of numerous state laws and regulations limiting the evil effects of abortion; and despite the reduction in the numbers of abortion clinics and of total annual abortions; there are still over a million unborn children killed each year in our country.
Undoing Roe v. Wade will not be possible unless we change the direction of our culture. Only once the culture begins to turn back to God will the political process become less polarized and more open to a civil dialogue marked by truth and love. Only a New Evangelization of our nation will be able to change the hearts of our young so as to embrace a culture of life. Only when we return to God and His commandments will Roe v. Wade find itself in the dustbin of history.
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