Among pro-choice strategists, few are as thoughtful as William Saletan, who has written extensively on the abortion wars and offers regular updated analyses on Slate. He recently wrote this :

Technology can’t avert all our failings or tragedies. There will always be abortions. But when you look at the trends—more foolproof contraception, more access to morning-after pills, earlier and fewer abortions—you can begin to envision a gradual, voluntary exodus from at least half the time frame protected by Roe . That’s the half the public doesn’t support.

Maybe that six-month window made more sense in 1973 than it does today. Maybe, if we spend the next 10 years helping women avoid second-trimester abortions, we won’t have to spend the next 20 or 40 years defending them. Maybe the best way to end the assault on Roe is to make it irrelevant.

The road out of Roe won’t be easy. Conservatives are already fighting early-abortion pills, morning-after pills, sex education, and birth control. But that’s a different fight from the one we’ve been stuck in since 1973. It’s a more winnable fight, and a more righteous one. Five hundred years from now, people will look back on our surgical abortions the way we look back on the butchery of medieval barbers. Like the barbers, we’re just trying to help people to the best of our ability. But our ability is growing. So should our wisdom, and our ambitions.

Of course, the most hardline pro-abortionists are not about to give up the battle for preserving the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe . What Saletan is saying publicly, however, many who think of themselves as pro-choice are acknowledging privately. Principled pro-lifers, on the other hand, know that the goal is not to find means less repugnant than the butchery of medieval barbers for the killing of unborn babies. Not just five hundred years from now, but in the foreseeable future, it is hoped that people will look back and recognize the moral absurdity of “trying to help people” by helping them destroy their offspring.

The debate is changing almost day by day. A few days ago in this space, Joseph Bottum indicated his skepticism about the South Dakota decision to provide legal protection for all unborn children except in cases of direct threat to the life of the mother (a circumstance that is virtually nonexistent). I understand the skepticism about pro-life strategy, and am supportive of the work of, for instance, Americans United for Life, which is engaged in sophisticated state-by-state efforts to extend protective laws incrementally. At the same time, it may be that South Dakota and several other states now prepared to follow its lead are moving the goal posts for the contention that will follow the overruling or setting aside of Roe . We really don’t know how this will play out in the next several years.

What we do know for sure is that there are now almost no defenders of Roe ‘s legal or medical coherence, and that the abortion license it imposed by judicial fiat has not been legitimated by public acceptance. In whatever form “after Roe ” presents itself, we can expect broad political support for the goal of becoming a society in which “every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.” There will always be some abortions, as there will always be some rapes, robberies, and other forms of unjustified killing. Some states will probably permit abortion-inducing “contraceptives,” and others may make exceptions for the commonly-mentioned cases of rape, incest, and direct threat to the life of the mother.

But it would be a great mistake to underestimate the resurgence of moral reason and common sense in the aftermath of the demise of the Roe regime. The claim advanced by Justice Ruth Ginsberg and others that Roe simply (and recklessly) accelerated the movement of public sentiment in favor of abortion is false. As Joseph Bottum noted in yesterday’s posting, Russell Hittinger documented in ” Abortion Before Roe ” in the October 1994 issue of F IRST T HINGS , that Americans were, in the years and months prior to Roe , moving in the direction of greater legal protection of the unborn.

As the late Justice Byron White said at the time, Roe was an act of “raw judicial power” that wiped off the books of all fifty states existing protections of the unborn. In the breadth and brutality of its sweep, it is worth remembering, the Roe decision greatly surprised also those who were pressing for “liberalized abortion law.” Before January 22, 1973, the position mandated by Roe was generally viewed as “extremist.”

The action of the Court in usurping legislative authority and defying public sentiment suddenly turned the extremist position into the “mainstream.” Or so at least the supporters of the decision claimed. That is the fiction with which we have lived for 33 years. With the overturning or bypassing of Roe , that fiction will collapse. In state after state, the people and their representatives will be debating whether they want to “go quite so far as South Dakota.” But almost nobody in the real world of political deliberation will be advocating the legislative re-establishment of the unlimited abortion license imposed by Roe . That’s what I mean by moving the goalposts.

Again, nobody can know how this will play out. Mr. Saletan may be right in saying that in most states people will settle for limiting abortion to less aesthetically repugnant ways of killing in the first two or three months. The pro-life movement will never settle for that. Politics, it is said, is the art of the possible. More accurately, politics is the art of exploring what may be possible.

The pro-life cause has had more than its share of setbacks. We must be braced for the possibility that the Supreme Court, contrary to expectations, will reaffirm Roe and thus even more firmly set the current abortion regime in concrete. I don’t think that will happen. Whatever happens, we are signed on for the duration in our commitment to a society in which every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.


Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr has just been reissued in paperback by University of Notre Dame Press. Booklist called it “an unusual and provocative affirmation of religious faith. Neither religiously sectarian nor technically daunting, this is a book that invites the widest range of readers to ponder the deepest kinds of questions.” National Review called it “a stunning tour de force.” I, too, think it is brilliant. Now it’s also cheap.

The paperback edition of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here .


In addition to which :

In his typically winsome manner, Joseph Bottum writes in “The Mad Scientists’ Club” about the difference between science nerds of thirty years ago and those who came up in a world of computerized reality. This is in the April issue of F IRST T HINGS . Kids used to be Newtonians, fiddling with something like how the real world works, while now they’re Cartesians “whose first idea for a problem is to model it on a computer.” Those who remember the excitement of launching a model rocket—a real model rocket—will recognize a deep change that is underway, and perhaps unstoppable. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?


Avery Cardinal Dulles says of Catholic Matters :

"It would be difficult to find a guide so knowledgeable, so theologically astute, and so engaging as a writer. Father Neuhaus presents the ‘high adventure’ of a Catholic orthodoxy that stands firmly against the winds of adversity and confusion."

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