As President Donald Trump zeroes in on his nomination to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, abortion has returned to the forefront of a national debate, and to a degree not seen since the 1980s.
The topic never completely goes away, and Americans remain deeply divided on the subject. But abortion’s overall ranking as an issue of importance, compared with others, has risen and fallen over the years. It is resurrected now because Trump’s choice to replace Kennedy could conceivably tilt the court dramatically to the right, and progressives are making the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade their rallying cry to oppose Trump’s pick.
The left seeks to define the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion as “settled law.” In other words, it argues, justices should consider Roe so ingrained in American life, and so often upheld through the years, that it is no longer subject to being overturned. Those who share that view want the Senate to insist a nominee for the court agree that Roe v. Wade is beyond reproach.
In reality, there is no such thing as settled law; any constitutional issue is subject to revision – and even reversal if enough justices say it is. “Settled law” is for the most part just another tool in the spin box of partisans who favor one side or the other.
If an entire nation can be judged for its sins, pro-lifers believe legalized abortion is among the greatest sins ever committed by the United States as a whole, right up there with slavery. Exact numbers are impossible to know, but the consensus seems to be that about 60 million abortions have been performed since the law took effect.
For supporters of abortion rights, that is 60 million women who exercised their right to make their own health-care choices about their own bodies. For opponents of such rights, that’s 60 million souls killed in the womb, 60 million children who were deprived of their right to be born, to grow up and to contribute to our society.
So divided are we on abortion that we usually can’t even agree on how to talk about it. Are you pro-life or anti-choice? Are you pro-choice or pro-abortion? Is it a fetus or an unborn baby? Is it merely part of a woman’s body or a separate human being with its own heartbeat and divine spark?
Aside from the “right to privacy” argument, we know the usual emotionally charged, hot-button objections to any suggestion that abortion be made illegal again. What about cases of rape or incest? If the tiny percentage of abortions actually performed for victims of rape and incest were the only abortions, most of the pro-life community would declare victory.
What about discovering that the fetus has a serious developmental disability such as Down syndrome? Visit a school near here called Hills & Dales, or an annual event here called KAMP Dovetail, and then argue that such children are destined for inadequate, unfulfilled or unloved lives.
For me, opposing abortion is not just a religious precept, it’s a common-sense one. It is illogical that we celebrate miraculous scientific advancements that allow us to save lives in the womb at earlier and earlier stages – including in utero surgeries – and yet we say those same lives at the same stages of development are arbitrarily subject to being aborted. An unborn child is not deserving of life based on whether it is wanted, any more than whether you and I are wanted determines our right to live.
But while I am pro-life, I don’t worry much about Roe v. Wade. For me, outlawing abortion is much like the failed effort to enforce prohibition during the 1920s. The problem is not the legality of the practice; it’s that there is a demand for it at all.
I have often argued that pro-lifers should focus more on changing hearts and less on rolling back laws. If we believe what we say we believe – that every unborn child is a gift from God and deserves to be cherished – we should focus on that message and convince more people of its merit. When Americans agree on that, it won’t matter whether abortion is legal, any more than it matters that it’s legal to chop off your own hand.
Even if Roe v. Wade is soon overturned, pro-lifers shouldn’t celebrate too much. Abortion will still be in demand, because hearts haven’t yet been changed.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.