On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton, 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 14th Amendment, seven justices created a license to kill the unborn.
These justices 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 a humane and enlightened policy, one that would ease the burdens of many women and girls and relieve the enormous cost to society of a high birth rate among indigent, often unmarried, women. They seemed to assume that abortion would be easily integrated into the fabric of American social and political life.
They were wrong on all counts.
They were wrong about the Constitution. As the two dissenting justices pointed out, it was 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 could be read to imply anything about abortion, it was that unborn human beings were, like everyone else, entitled to "the equal protection of the laws."
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 proved to be an unmitigated disaster. In the first three decades after Roe and Doe, more than 30 million unborn children died. It did moral, psychological, and sometimes physical harm to women who turned out to be its "secondary victims." It corrupted physicians and nurses by turning healers into killers. It undermined the moral authority of the law by its blatant injustice to the weak. It abetted irresponsible-even predatory-male sexual behavior. Far from reducing the rate of out-of-wedlock births, particularly to poor women, abortion helped cause illegitimacy to skyrocket.
The justices were wrong moreover to suppose that America, as a nation, would learn to live with 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 legislative efforts to liberalize state abortion laws. In the beginning, the movement and its leadership was 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. The common commitment to defending the unborn became the heart of an unprecedented Catholic-evangelical alliance that soon extended beyond abortion to issues of sexuality, marriage and family, education, international human rights, and the place of religion in American public life.
Abortion was 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. Sen. Ted Kennedy and black leader 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 lobby 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, Robert P. Casey, the popular two-term governor of Pennsylvania, was denied a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention to prevent any expression of dissent from what had become the party's pro-abortion orthodoxy. Instead, the party faithful were treated to remarks from a pro-abortion Republican woman who had actually run against Casey for governor of Pennsylvania in 1988. 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 were more common than pro-life Democrats, and carried more influence within their party, the Republican Party had been officially and securely pro-life since Ronald Reagan won the presidential nomination in 1980. "Pro-choice" Republican presidential aspirants, such as California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992 and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in 1996, failed miserably, and the pro-life majority in the party beat back attempts to nominate individuals who were 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 brought into its ranks many disaffected rank-and-file Democrats, including a large number of Catholics and evangelicals. In a sense, Republicans became the party of the religiously engaged, while the Democrats became the party of liberal secularists. The major exception to this generalization was that, among racial and ethnic minorities, many actively religious people continued to vote for the Democrats, though most were personally pro-life.
In the early decades, the great disappointment to the pro-life cause was the repeated failure of Republican presidents to secure Supreme Court appointments for jurists who would reverse Roe vs. Wade. For example, President Reagan's nomination in 1987 of Judge Robert Bork-a sure bet to have provided what would have been a fifth and deciding vote to overturn Roe-was defeated by the Democratic-controlled United States Senate after a shameful campaign of vilification against one of the nation's most distinguished legal scholars.
And yet, over the succeeding decades, prayers, political and educational efforts, and outreach to pregnant women in need did, by God's mercy, save countless precious lives.
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. And perhaps that's why God let the United States survive the monstrous evil of abortion.
Thanks be to God, the conflict over abortion did not produce a civil war. In time, Americans realized that they were a people under judgment. They realized they would someday be called to account for the national sin of abortion. Like Thomas Jefferson, they knew they must "tremble for our country when we consider that God is just." In the end, the question was not whether there would be a political entity called "the United States of America" on the North American land mass; rather, it was whether the United States of America would remain a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."