By Wesley J. Smith
It has been 41 years since Roe v. Wade “settled” the abortion controversy, leaving in its wake ever-increasing societal divisions and a crumbling of our culture’s commitment to the equality and sanctity of human life.
Law doesn’t just reflect our values. In these days of cultural relativism, it teaches right from wrong. If something is “legal,” many see it as “morally right.”
If I am correct, that explains why abortion became so ubiquitous post-Roe. Pregnant women—and often, their persuasive boyfriends/husbands who didn’t want to bear the responsibility of fatherhood—came to see abortion not only as “a right” but “the right thing to do” when a baby was not planned.
More than that, Roe helped create a social environment in which the most weak and vulnerable among us came to be viewed as less than human.
Roe certainly wasn’t the first Supreme Court ruling to engage in dehumanizing rhetoric. The first was the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that black human beings are of “an inferior order,” as a consequence of which, they have no rights” which whites were “bound to respect.” That decision not only helped create the climate for civil war, but validated blatantly racist views.
The second such case was the 1927 Buck v. Bell, which authorized the involuntary sterilization of Carrie Buck, the daughter of a prostitute, because she gave birth out of wedlock. Subsequently, tens of thousands of innocent Americans who ran afoul of the pernicious junk science of eugenics were sterilized under color of law. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ assertion that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” deserves a special place in jurisprudential infamy.
In its turn, Roe relativized nascent human life by making the moral value of a fetus dependent on whether he or she is wanted. Perhaps even more destructively, it also legitimized the dangerous notion that taking human life—killing—is a morally acceptable answer to human suffering.
In the years since, that meme has expanded to threaten human life outside the womb. For example, it helped create the environment in which people with profound cognitive disabilities—such as Terri Schiavo—are not only viewed as less than human (“nonpersons”), but killable through intentional dehydration. Worse, there is now much advocacy in bioethical and medical journals to make instrumental use of such patients as sources of organs—as is sometimes already done with the bodies of aborted fetuses.
Meanwhile, assisted suicide advocates explicitly tie their death agenda to the abortion license, claiming that anyone who supports the right of “pregnancy termination” should also support the right of for the sick and disabled to self-terminate.
Following Roe’s legal playbook, assisted suicide advocates have repeatedly sought court rulings creating a constitutional right to what they euphemistically call “aid in dying.” Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously refused to impose an assisted suicide Roe v Wade in 1997—a decision that I believe might have been different had the pro-life movement not rebelled so effectively and energetically against legal abortion.
But the assisted suicide crowd didn’t quit. In the years since, they have filed repeated state lawsuits seeking a state constitutional right to become dead. They failed in Florida, Alaska, Connecticut, and elsewhere, but partially succeeded a few years ago in a muddled ruling by the Montana Supreme Court.
And just the other day, a New Mexico judge ruled that “aid in dying” is a fundamental constitutional right in New Mexico. Time will tell whether that ruling sticks on appeal.
The legal and philosophical grounds that justify abortion have also been invoked as reasons to permit infanticide—or “after birth abortion”—as one bioethics article put it. That remains illegal in the U.S.—although the mercy killing of infants is common in the Netherlands where euthanasia is legal.
That should not make us sanguine. It is cause for great worry that the world’s most prestigious academic chair in bioethics is held by Princeton’s Peter Singer, not in spite of—but because—he happens to be the world’s foremost proponent of the moral propriety of killing babies whose lives do not serve the interests of their families.
Roe has also subverted the Hippocratic Oath. In fact, the Oath isn’t taken anymore by most new doctors precisely because it precludes abortion and assisted suicide. Once doctors don’t feel bound by “do no harm” Hippocratic values, anything becomes possible in the medical context.
Eventually, I worry that doctors and nurses will be forced by law to choose between remaining in their professions and being complicit with abortion and assisted suicide—either by doing the deed or referring to a colleague they know is willing to end human life. Indeed, I expect the fight over “medical conscience,” as it is sometimes called, to become one of our most intense cultural and legal flashpoints in coming years.
There is a great old Talmudic saying: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world..” If that is true—and I think it is great wisdom—how many worlds have been saved by the pro-life movement since Roe v Wade? Beyond counting! I have met some of them, and so have you.
So let us not be unduly swayed by victories or defeats, name calling or praise, election or litigation outcomes. Instead, let us be thankful for the honor to have been called in such a time to stand peacefully in the breach defending the intrinsic dignity and equal value of all human life.