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From the June, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Our National Sin by Robert P. George

Our National Sin

Robert P. George on the Past, Present & Future of Abortion

On January 22, 1973, in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the laws of 50 states prohibiting or significantly restricting abortion. In the name of a generalized “right to privacy” allegedly implicit in the due process clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, seven justices (Blackmun, Burger, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, and Powell) created a license to kill the unborn.

These men probably had no idea that they were unleashing a struggle for the soul of the nation. Five had been appointed by Republican presidents—two by Eisenhower, three by Nixon. Four of these five were regarded as conservative, “law-and-order” judges. All no doubt believed that legal abortion was an enlightened and humane policy, one that would ease the burdens of many women and girls and relieve the enormous cost to society of a high birthrate among indigent, often unmarried, women. They seemed blithely to assume that abortion would be easily integrated into the fabric of American social and political life.

They were wrong on all counts.

A Multitude of Errors

They were wrong about the Constitution. As the two dissenting justices (White and Renquist) pointed out, it is nothing short of absurd to claim that a right to feticide follows from the constitutional injunction that “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

If the Constitution can be read to imply anything about abortion, it is that unborn human beings are, like everyone else, entitled to “the equal protection of the laws.” At a minimum, Roe and Doe were an outrageous usurpation of the constitutional authority of the people of the United States to shape law and policy through the institutions of representative government.

The Roe justices were also wrong to imagine that legal abortion would prove to be enlightened or in the slightest respect humane. On the contrary, the policy imposed by the Court has proven to be an unmitigated disaster. In the 28 years since Roe and Doe, abortion has taken the lives of more than 30 million unborn victims—each a distinct, unique, precious human being. It has done immeasurable moral, psychological, and sometimes physical harm to women who are so very often, and in so many respects, truly abortion’s “secondary victims.”

It has corrupted physicians and nurses by turning healers into killers. It has undermined the moral authority of the law by its injustice. It has abetted irresponsible—even predatory—male sexual behavior. Far from reducing the rate of out-of-wedlock births, particularly to poor women, illegitimacy has skyrocketed in the age of abortion.

The justices were wrong, moreover, to suppose that America, as a nation, would learn to live with the abortion license. A notable effect of the Court’s rulings was to energize the grassroots pro-life movement that had come into being a few years earlier to resist efforts to liberalize state abortion laws. In the beginning, the movement and its leadership were largely Roman Catholic. The mainline Protestant churches, if they concerned themselves with the issue at all, positioned themselves on the pro-abortion side.

At a decisive moment, however, the Evangelical community, prompted very significantly by the pro-life writings of the late Francis Schaeffer, became fully activated in the cause. Today, a common commitment to defending the unborn is at the heart of an unprecedented Catholic-Evangelical alliance that extends beyond abortion to issues of sexuality, marriage and family, education, welfare, crime and prison policy, international human rights, and the place of religion in American public life. It is fair to say that the most influential pro-life voices in the country today belong to Evangelical leaders such as Chuck Colson and James Dobson.

The Political Divide

Abortion is at the heart of the divide between the nation’s major political parties. When Roe and Doe were decided, many Democratic Party politicians—and even some notable liberals—were outspokenly pro-life.

Teddy Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, for example, publicly proclaimed their commitment to defending the unborn against the violence of abortion. Soon, however, the number of pro-life Democrats began to dwindle and pro-life liberals became an endangered species. Some, like Kennedy and Jackson, defected to the pro-abortion camp. People of firmer conviction found themselves in many cases carried by the force of conscience out of the Democratic party and into the Republican fold.

By 1980, the Democrats were so firmly in the grip of the abortion power that it was widely regarded as impossible for a pro-life politician to compete for the party’s presidential nomination or be considered for the vice presidency. In 1992, to prevent any expression of dissent from what had become the party’s pro-abortion orthodoxy, the party denied Robert Casey, the hugely popular and successful two-term Governor of Pennsylvania, a chance to speak to the Democratic National Convention. Instead, the party faithful were treated to remarks from a pro-abortion Republican woman who had actually worked for Casey’s opponent in the 1990 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Casey, running an explicitly pro-life campaign, had defeated her by more than a million votes, carrying 54 of the state’s 55 counties.

Although pro-abortion Republicans are today more common than pro-life Democrats, and carry much more influence within their party, the Republican party has been officially and securely pro-life since Ronald Reagan won the presidential nomination in 1980. “Pro-choice” Republican presidential aspirants, such as California Governor Pete Wilson in 1992 and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter in 1996, have failed miserably, and the pro-life majority in the party has beaten back attempts to nominate individuals who are not clearly pro-life for the vice presidency. In 2000, the party’s pro-abortion minority did not even venture a token effort to remove the strong and unequivocal pro-life plank in the party’s platform.

The Republican party’s support for the unborn has brought into its ranks many disaffected rank-and-file Democrats, including a large number of Catholics and Evangelicals. Indeed, it overstates the matter only a bit to say that, as a result of the conflict of worldviews that began with abortion, the Republicans have become the party of the religiously engaged, while the Democrats have become the party of secularists. The major exception to this generalization is that among racial and ethnic minorities, many actively religious people—most of whom, the polls consistently tell us, are pro-life—continue to vote for the Democrats.

One great disappointment to the pro-life cause has been the repeated failure of Republican presidents to secure Supreme Court appointments for jurists who would reverse Roe v. Wade. Of the six justices appointed by Republicans since 1973, all of whom currently serve, only two—Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—favor reversal. President Reagan’s nomination in 1987 of Judge Robert Bork—a sure bet to have provided what would have been the fifth and deciding vote to overturn Roe—was defeated by the Democratic-controlled Senate after a shameful campaign of vilification against one of the nation’s most distinguished legal scholars.

As things currently stand, at least two pro-abortion justices must be replaced if the regime of judicially imposed abortion-on-demand is to be dismantled. It is the fervent hope of pro-life citizens that President George W. Bush will perceive the need to reverse Roe as the most urgent consideration in choosing Supreme Court nominees, should vacancies occur.

The Pro-Life Burden

Of course, from the pro-life vantage point, success on the judicial front is only the prelude to the larger political struggle over abortion. It is out of the question that the Supreme Court will anytime soon mandate legal protection for the unborn. If Roe is reversed, the result will be to return the matter to the domain of ordinary democratic deliberation for resolution by the state legislatures or the Congress.

The burden will then be on the pro-life movement to win the struggle for the soul of the nation. We must, with God’s help, persuade our fellow citizens to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence by bringing the unborn within the protection of our laws.

As Mother Teresa of Calcutta reminded us during her final visit to the United States, prayer is the most powerful weapon in the pro-life arsenal. We must ask God’s forgiveness for our great national sin of abandoning the unborn to the crime of abortion and implore his guidance and assistance in recalling the nation to its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. While not every pro-life citizen can be an activist or a leader in the social and political spheres, everyone can pray, and no one’s prayers are superfluous.

In addition to prayer and our political efforts, we must reach out to pregnant women who are in need or who are subject for other reasons to pro-abortion pressures. The so-called pro-choice side, with the help of an overwhelmingly sympathetic media, have portrayed people who oppose abortion as heartless moralizers and enemies of women.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For more than 30 years, pro-life people have devoted themselves, often at great personal cost and in the face of many obstacles, to assisting pregnant women in need. They have recognized that a truly just and humane understanding is one that recognizes the common dignity and mutual interests of mother and child.

Ordinary pro-life individuals and families have worked and sacrificed to provide for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of pregnant women in need—many of whom, it must be noted, are driven to contemplate abortion under pressure from boyfriends, husbands, family, and friends. Even women who have succumbed to the temptation to destroy their unborn children are not condemned or abandoned by the pro-life movement. Rather, they are offered forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing—no strings attached.

And we must, in obedience to the command of Christ himself, love our enemies. We must pray for those who have brought the license of abortion upon our nation and for those who today protect and sustain it. We must also pray for those who perform and profit from abortions.

Our love for them must be godly and ungrudging. We must never give up on its power to transform. Among those whose hearts have already turned from abortion to the pro-life cause are Dr. Bernard Nathanson, once the nation’s leading abortionist and a founder of the abortion movement, and Norma McCorvey—the “Jane Roe” who, in 1973, demanded the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade.

God’s Victory

How will the struggle over abortion be viewed by Americans on the hundredth anniversary of Roe v. Wade? By 2073, will the pro-life movement have succeeded or failed? Will the struggle still be going on?

Of course, it is not given to us to know these things. There is no good reason to believe that our efforts will fail. Yet we have no guarantee of their success. For us, there is only the trying. And in trying, we fulfill God’s commands, and build up his kingdom. The victory is ultimately in his hands.

We know this: Our prayers, political and educational efforts, and outreach to pregnant women in need have, by God’s mercy, already saved countless precious lives. We must not lose sight of this fact in our grief at the loss of so many others due to the injustice of our laws and the coldness of so many hearts toward abortion’s tiny victims.

Reflecting on the carnage of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address concluded that “the great scourge of war” had been brought upon both North and South as punishment for the national sin of slavery. Perhaps God saw fit to let the nation survive despite that sin because of the sincere, selfless, and prayerful efforts of the enemies of slavery to end that monstrous evil.

Thanks be to God, the conflict over abortion has not produced, and will not produce, a civil war. Still, we must not forget that we are a people under judgment. We are called to account for the national sin of abortion. Like Thomas Jefferson, we must “tremble for our country when we consider that God is just.”

We must pray that God, in his mercy, will not abandon us to our sin but will rather restore us to the godly ideals of our founding. We must plead that he will once again let the nation survive. This time, though, the question is not whether there will be a political entity called “the United States of America” on the North American continent; rather, it is whether the United States of America will remain a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.

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