Judge John Noonan: RIP

By Dave Andrusko

Judge John Noonan

Judge John Noonan

We at National Right to Life will have more to say later this week about the remarkable legacy of Judge John Noonan, who passed away April 17 at the age of 90. Strangely for a man of such enormous impact, word of his death has been slow to reach even organizations such as NRLC on whose board of directors he once served. I just found out today and I didn’t want to allow another day to go by with a few words.

He unfurled his steadfast, principled opposition to abortion and assisted suicide in books, lectures, law review articles, and legal opinions. Noonan was often (and rightly) described as a Renaissance man whose breadth of subject matter is staggering.

After a distinguished academic career, first as a member the University of Notre Dame Law School faculty which he joined in 1960 and then in 1966, as professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, Noonan was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 as a judge on U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. He served the court for 11 years before assuming senior status in 1996.

For veteran pro-lifers, Noonan is best remembered for three accomplishments (although there were many others): the books, “The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives,” which he both edited and contributed to, and “A Private Choice: Abortion in America in the Seventies”; and as author of the 1995 opinion that upheld a Washington state law banning assisted suicide.

Two years later, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld both Washington’s and New York’s laws prohibiting assisted suicide. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court found that Washington state’s law did not violate constitutional guarantees of “liberty”; and in Vacco v. Quill that New York’s similar law did not violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection.

Noonan’s essay opening “The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives” was titled “An Almost Absolute Value in History.” It was and remains so instructive that it is required reading for students attending National Right to Life’s Academy.

He concludes his essay with both a “humanistic” and a theological “commandment” against the taking of unborn life. Here’s the latter:

The perception of the humanity of the fetus and the weighing of fetal rights against other human rights constituted the work of the moral analysts. But what spirit animated their abstract judgments? For the Christian community it was the injunction of Scripture to love your neighbor as yourself. The fetus as human was a neighbor; his life had parity with one’s own. The commandment gave life to what otherwise would have been only rational calculation.

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