Resisting the Instinctive ‘Conservative’ Impulse on Roe v. Wade

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, the logical response would have been a series of reflections about his dominant role in changing the definition of marriage and turning same-sex pairings into a constitutional right. Instead, the first thought among many who follow American politics was Roe v. Wade may finally be overturned.

While public opinion has come a long way since the early 1970s ruling—a majority of voters now favor some kind of restriction on abortion—Roe itself has become part of the cultural landscape. Make no mistake, many people—even self-professed “conservatives”—will find the idea of change discomfiting and discover in themselves a preference for the status quo. “Conservatism” of the kind that amounts to a resistance to change as opposed to an attachment to particular moral principles, would keep Roe v. Wade—a precedent of almost 50 years’ standing—intact.

In order to combat that fear of change in what has become a major cultural investment for some, we should face the issue squarely. What questions do we have to consider? And remember, there will be a flurry of all kinds of chaff thrown into the air to create distraction and confuse the issue.

The World that Brought Us Roe

We can begin with the cultural milieu in which Roe was decided. Roe came to us soon after the birth control pill reached the market. Abortion advocates believed the pill would mean abortions would be rare as unwanted pregnancies also would be rare. It hasn’t worked out that way, however. Abortions have stacked up in the tens of millions.

At the time Justice Harry Blackmun penned the court’s decision in Roe, we knew little about the life of the unborn child. If you will excuse the pun, fetology was in its infancy. What we knew then about the life of the unborn child versus what we know now represents a radical change in scientific knowledge. Bizarrely, we carry on as if all this new information should work to the benefit of wanted children while being irrelevant to the status of unwanted ones.

Remember, too, the court decided Roe in the period before ultrasound and now 3D ultrasound. Today those images are typically the first “photographs” of a child to make it into the baby book.

The cognitive dissonance necessary to sustain our dual practice both of treasuring and simultaneously tolerating the elective destruction of nascent humans is truly incredible.

The Dilemma of Persuasion in a Post-Roe Culture

There are questions we must answer about the unborn child: Is the unborn child human? Is the unborn child a person? When the defenses of Roe are repeated endlessly on social media and on cable television, we must redirect the conversation to those fundamental questions and push for honest answers. If the answers to these questions are yes, then we must find a way to put an end to abortion, no matter how culturally useful we may otherwise find the practice to be. Those exercising rights over others almost always find it beneficial to do so.

We should not continue abortion on the logic that there will be hardship situations. No one would accept an argument in defense of maintaining slavery because slaves will have nowhere to go and won’t be ready for a life of freedom. No one would say you can’t end slavery until we set up a proper set of welfare programs for ex-slaves. You end the slavery. Full stop. Then, you tackle the next set of challenges. But you don’t make the end of slavery depend on solving the subsequent and resulting problems.

Women who have had abortions will not benefit from being blamed and our political culture, generally, will not benefit from blaming them. Besides, our culture has actively proclaimed the validity and even the moral good of the practice for so long that it is difficult to see how those tempted by it resist. Women have relied upon teachers, parents, doctors, and even clergy in choosing to terminate pregnancies. More important, they have been told that abortion is a right sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution. (Few are aware of the tenuous reasoning that supported such an interpretation.)

A post-Roe culture would need to be a culture of responsibility both individually and collectively. It would be well worth the price. Women and men will need to exercise greater care in the choices they make. Communities, families, churches, and yes, governments will need to gear their efforts more strongly toward developing character and personal agency as well as supporting the institutions that operate when our individual decisions go awry.

If you believe in God, you should be concerned about the moral and spiritual weight half a century of mass abortion places on all of us. With the information available to us today, it grows increasingly difficult to broker the lies we have to believe in order to maintain a regime of abortion.

If you don’t believe in God, you might be concerned that even secular posterity will likely see the practice as violent, the unfair abuse of the weak by the powerful, and indicative of a society that viewed people as disposable.

Heaven help us if we allow an inclination to conserve the status quo leads us to squander this second chance to correct an immeasurably costly decision.

Photo credit:   Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

About Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. serves as dean of arts and sciences at Union University. He is an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute and the author of three books on politics and religion.

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