In 1973, after the Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision, the New York Times expressed confidence that “the Court’s verdict on abortions provides a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution” to a debate that has “divided America too long.”
The Times could not have been more mistaken. Not only did the abortion debate dramatically increase after Roe, it remains as lively as ever—forty-five years on—as witnessed by Friday’s massive and inspiring March for Life.
More importantly, the pro-life movement has begun to make real gains. As the Catholic News Service recently noted, citing a major study: “The US abortion rate is down to its lowest level since the Supreme Court made abortion legal virtually on demand in 1973, and the rate is half of its early-1980s peak.”
Many abortion advocates maintain that the decline is largely due to access to “family planning” and contraception; but widespread access to both has been available for decades, and even the “pro-choice” Guttmacher Institute, which issued the study, acknowledged that “the wave of abortion restrictions passed at the state level over the last five years” may well have played a part. Pro-life scholars who have studied the issue certainly agree.
The election of Donald Trump as president, who has promised to fight abortion and appoint Supreme Court justices opposed to Roe, is another boost. Expressing the sentiments of many, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List now believes: “This is the strongest the pro-life movement has been since 1973.”
But pro-lifers still face three major challenges going forward:
Pro-lifers must continue to prioritize abortion.
Abortion and its deadly cousin, euthanasia, are the greatest human rights issues of our time, at least in the United States. Yet there are professed pro-lifers who inadvertently weaken the pro-life movement by attempting to link it with other concerns, such as poverty, immigration reform, and protection of the environment. As important as the latter issues are, they are not on the same moral plane as abortion and euthanasia. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles made this clear in a powerful speech last year, criticizing the so-called “seamless garment” and “consistent ethic of life” approaches to Catholic teaching:
Advocates have noble intentions—they want to bring the Church’s moral wisdom and passion for justice to bear on a broad range of urgent issues. … But the hard truth is that not all injustices in the world are “equal.” … For instance, we would never want to describe slavery as just one of several problems in eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century American life.
There are indeed “lesser evils,” the archbishop continued, which means there are “greater” evils as well—“evils that are more serious than others and even some evils that are so grave that Christians are called to address them as a primary duty.”
The two that demand such attention are abortion and euthanasia: “The Church must insist that abortion and euthanasia are grave and intrinsic evils”—evils that are so “corrosive and corrupting” to the foundations of society that it makes no sense to talk about other issues unless we address these two first. This doesn’t mean we turn away from other vital issues—only that we recognize the pro-life imperative.
Pro-lifers must fight the anti-life mentality of our schools, the entertainment industry, and the media.
Americans are constantly bombarded with curricula, movies, and op-ed pieces that seek to justify the culture of death, under the guise of “rights talk,” false mercy, and Orwellian “compassion.” The media have been particularly devious in this regard, depicting Pope Francis as a leader who wants to downplay and marginalize the pro-life imperative. An example was a recent New York Times profile of Joseph Tobin, the new archbishop of Newark, whom Francis recently elevated to the College of Cardinals. In the profile, the Times commented: “[Cardinal Tobin] is just the kind of leader Pope Francis is elevating to realign the Church in the United States with his priorities.”
The pope has made clear, we were assured, that an emphasis on “divisive” issues such as abortion is out, to be replaced by a Church that emphasizes “humility and service to the poor”—as if the two were somehow incompatible. But even a cursory review of Jorge Bergoglio’s career, both before and after he became pope, reveals his passionate concern for the unborn, using language that has exceeded even that of his predecessors.
Francis expressed the pro-life imperative shortly after the article on Bishop Tobin appeared: “The Church must never tire of being an advocate for life and must not neglect to proclaim that human life is to be protected unconditionally from the moment of conception until natural death,” he said in a message of support to France’s March for Life.
As for Cardinal Tobin, however “progressive” he may be on other matters, he has never downplayed the gravity of the abortion holocaust. When an Indiana law was passed to protect unborn children with potential disabilities, Tobin wrote: “This new law reflects the love that God has for everyone by affirming that every human life is sacred. This is a decisive step in promoting life, not death, for unborn human life.”
Given his very troubled personal history, during which he long claimed to be “very pro-choice,” President Trump is a most unlikely ally to the pro-life and pro-family cause. And yet, it was the very imperfect Trump who sent his vice president and top advisor to the March for Life. Trump will soon be nominating a new justice to the Supreme Court, reportedly in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia—an outspoken critic of Roe and judicial activism.
Pro-lifers need to do everything they can to influence President Trump positively in this regard, for if he betrays his pro-life promises, especially by selecting a bad Supreme Court Justice, it will irreparably damage his presidency and destroy the main reason many pro-lifers voted for him—despite serious reservations about other aspects of his candidacy. In this respect, President Trump deserves our prayers, but not our blind loyalty or trust, because one can never be too careful in protecting and preserving human life—and monitoring politicians who pledge to uphold it.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.