Roe v. Wade...its time and place
Next week marks the 42nd anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision, “Roe v. Wade,” a somewhat complex decision based upon the Fourteenth Amendment and its extension to women a right of privacy in the matter of seeking an abortion. There is very little I can add to the great amount of literature from the Catholic hierarchy and theologians on the subject; nor am I conversant with the large body of legal debate over this decision that continues to our present time.
Reports I have seen in the general media indicate that national sentiment has shifted statistically in recent years on the matter, with Americans expressing a slightly more cautious and reserved approach toward the issue of abortion per recent 2014 Gallup polling, but the new numbers are nothing to celebrate about in terms of Catholic teaching on the defense of life. It is notably, though, that attendance at the annual Washington March for Life has risen from 250,000 in 2010 to 650,000 in 2013 per Wikipedia.
I was 25 and completing my graduate theological studies in Washington when the ruling was announced. I was living in a conclave of religious communities, Catholic scholars, and Catholic universities at the time. I myself was actually doing research on the relationship of “women’s liberation” (as women’s issues were referred to then) and Catholic theological trends during that semester. My recollection is that there was an air of expectation on the outcome of the case, so that the prevailing mood on the grassy knolls of Catholic University was one of resignation as much as anything. Organized pro life ecclesiastical and political movements had not yet taken shape.
Over four decades later my own reflections on “Roe v. Wade” have taken shape in these somewhat eccentric and disorganized constructs.
First, 1973 was a time when America was highly attuned to freedom of speech actions of all sorts. Many of the resulting causes were quite noble and became part of our legal system. The Civil Rights movement comes immediately to mind, when crusaders routinely broke local segregation codes and laws at the service of a greater justice, ultimately encoded in federal law. Similarly, conscientious objection and opposition to the Viet Nam War opened discussion on the balance of free speech vs. national security.
Second, concurrent with the first point was an American concern for privacy at the time of Roe v. Wade. In 1973 America was learning in a daily televised drama about the federal abuses of the Nixon Administration, collectively known as “Watergate.” There was considerable talk at the time about “keeping the government out of my bedroom” which implied for many that the government had nothing to say about human sexual conduct involving mature adults.
Third, the actual text of the court’s ruling gives the reader a sense of what was not known in 1973 about reproductive health or the philosophical definition of a human life. For example, there is recognition that an unborn child has rights, but the court was uncertain as to when these rights applied to the fetus. While Catholic teaching on this point is clear, it was less so to the general public and the sitting judges at the time. Thus, terms such as “viability of the fetus” and “trimesters” are notable in the discussion. It is also clear that the thinking of the time envisioned “life of the mother vs. life of the child” scenarios which, given advances in prenatal medicine, are much more rare today.
Fourth, given the publicity of the case and many other factors, abortion and the “Roe v. Wade” decision became, unfortunately, the flagship issues in the political crusade for women’s rights in the United States. In American public parlance, the terms “women’s rights” and “abortion rights” are synonymous. This is very unfortunate, because from a Christian vantage point there is a lot of common ground between Church teaching on the family and improvement in the lot of women’s lives that currently has considerable political wind at its back. Just wages for women, health care, maternity leave, domestic violence, discrimination, the sex trade, to name a few, are moral issues where Catholics—by belief and practice—would comfortably and energetically stand with those outside of the Catholic communion to make common cause.
The stumbling block, of course, is abortion, and more specifically the belief held by many in American society that a woman’s life is not complete without this option, that all of the progress made to date on behalf of women would be for naught were the judiciary to protect the rights of the unborn. We can hope that new generations of political leaders may come to appreciate that the respect of unborn children is a bellwether of dignity for all citizens, men and women, and vets them favorable for public duty and service.
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