In 1974, Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the Roe v. Wade decision, said in a television interview that Roe “will be regarded as one of the worst mistakes in the court's history or one of its great decisions.”
That was prescient. On Friday, the Supreme Court reversed perhaps its greatest mistake ever. With Roe v. Wade, a right to kill innocent life was imported into our constitutional history. When it comes to Supreme Court decisions that show abhorrent disrespect for the equal dignity of every human being, only Dred Scott v. Sandford vies with Roe for most egregious.
After a half century, this moment that so many of us devoutly hoped for, and worked for, and prayed for, is here. I started praying in front of abortion facilities when I was ordained a priest in 1982. My first parish was near one of these death factories, so I’ve been at this work for a few decades myself.
We would not be human if we did not take a moment to honor the pro-life heroes who worked for so many years to make this happen.
John Cardinal O’Connor rallied the faithful and rebuked the politicians. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus helped forge an intellectual coalition that overcame religious differences. Dr. Bernard Nathanson was one of many converts to the pro-life cause. A sometime atheist, he personally performed 5000 abortions before turning against the killing. His movie Silent Scream humanized the unborn child in the womb and forced abortion advocates to acknowledge that abortion is a violent act. I gratefully recall many pro-life feminists, women who stepped forward to say abortion is not good for women or a way to advance women’s equality.
One of them was Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the precursor to today's pro-life leaders like Marjorie Dannenfelser, Kristan Hawkins, and the Bay Area’s own Lila Rose. Dr. Jefferson was the first black female doctor from Harvard and a renowned professor of surgery at Boston University Medical School. In 1970, when the American Medical Association abandoned the Hippocratic Oath to announce that abortion was ethical where legal, Dr. Jefferson became a leading national figure who spoke against the killing of children in their mother’s womb. After she appeared in the 1972 public television series “The Advocates,” Dr. Jefferson received a letter from a rising California politician. “I wish I could have heard your views before our legislation was passed,” Ronald Reagan wrote. “You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life. I’m grateful to you.”
For fifty years pro-life advocates have done the hard work of keeping the nation’s conscience alive. We protested, we prayed in front of clinics, we sustained crisis pregnancy centers to help women choose life, we conducted healing retreats for women and men suffering the after-effects of abortion, we founded journals like the Human Life Review to make the intellectual case. Many worked in the legal field to make the principled case for overturning Roe v. Wade. Others strove to form and select judges who would respect and not pervert our national commitment to the inalienable right to life. Those called to politics worked to elect presidents and senators who would confirm such judges to the Supreme Court.
Together, we persevered. And today it is hard not to feel like we triumphed.
But in truth the overthrow of Roe is not the final triumph but the beginning of a new and harder road ahead. Our goal is not to create a culture where abortion is illegal, but where it is unthinkable. To do that requires sacrificial love for both mother and child.
There will be protests and threats and tumult. I ask you not to back down but to redouble your commitment. Most of all, I ask you to pray—because without God we can do nothing.
And then, get to work: Call up a local pregnancy center and commit to a monthly donation. Support political leaders who not only restrict abortion but provide new resources for mothers in crisis. Volunteer to accompany single mothers not only during pregnancy, but also beyond. Fast one day a week and donate the money you save to Catholic Charities or other organizations that provide for mothers in need. And men, answer the call to be a father to the fatherless.
On Friday, the Supreme Court reversed a half century of discrimination against the weakest and most vulnerable among us. We are now free at last to work for a culture of life and love for every human being. Let’s start today.
Salvatore J. Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco.
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