The American Catholic Church and Roe. v. Wade

Luz Woodring wears wings as she portrays a guardian angel of the unborn in front of the state Capitol building at an anti-abo
Luz Woodring wears wings as she portrays a guardian angel of the unborn in front of the state Capitol building at an anti-abortion rally of several thousand Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, in Olympia, Wash. Abortion opponents marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Tuesday with workshops, prayers and calls for more legislation chipping away at the abortion rights the U.S. Supreme Court decision seemed to guarantee. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Forty years ago this January, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Roe v. Wade, which struck down a number of states' restrictive abortion laws and extended the right of privacy to include the woman's right to terminate her pregnancy.

Many American Catholics took exception to this decision and have engaged in four decades of political action to reverse this outcome. As their strategy evolved, it took the following form: The Republican Party quadrennially pledged in its platform to appoint Supreme Court justices committed to reversing Roe v. Wade, and Catholics in the pews were encouraged to vote in favor of candidates' whose support for "life" issues was unwavering.

There might have been a time when this strategy was viable. It remains viable no longer. It is my opinion that any chance this strategy had of success probably evaporated at the time of the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992.

In that decision, three Republican justices, appointed in the 1980s, at a time when the Republican Party's enthusiasm for reversal was its zenith, sustained the outcome in Roe v. Wade and, in fact, provided Roe with a philosophical justification it had previously lacked. Decisions regarding "marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child-rearing, and education," Justices David Souter, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy wrote, involve "choices central to personal dignity and autonomy." Abortion fell within these protected choices and the decision to abort or bear a child was therefore a protected liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Catholic pro-lifers should have fundamentally rethought their strategy at this point. And indeed, some brave, far-sighted churchmen did. As early as 1983, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin drew an alternative road map for American Catholics. Cardinal Bernardin stressed the significance of a "consistent ethic of life." Capital punishment, modern war, the treatment of the terminally ill and abortion all fit within this term's capacious reach. We must see Christ in the face of every man and woman, he taught, and must therefore always be mindful of the intrinsic value of every human life, especially the least among us.

Bernardin refrained from fractious line-drawing or overt political action. Rather, he recommended gentle persuasion, acknowledging the good will of all participants in the public policy debate. "We should maintain and clearly articulate our religious convictions, but also maintain our civil courtesy," he cautioned. We live in a pluralistic society, after all, and that important fact required graciousness, civility and genuine respect for differing perspectives and points of view.

Instead of drawing the obvious lesson from Planned Parenthood v. Casey -- that Republican promises on abortion were cynically motivated by partisan advantage and were not a sincere commitment to the life issues -- Catholic pro-lifers "doubled-down" on their bet that support for the Republican Party would one day "pay off" in Roe's reversal. Cardinal's Bernardin's wise instruction went unheeded.

Forty years on, it is now apparent that Bernardin's way was the correct approach. The Supreme Court is less likely now than in 1992 to reverse Roe v. Wade. Nor will we see appointment to the bench of conservative justices pledged to reversing Roe. Public opinion, furthermore, opposes reversal. A Pew Foundation survey published this January indicates that 63 percent of the American public supports Roe while only 29 percent would like to see it overturned. This result is broadly consistent with other surveys that suggest that while the public would like to see some restrictions on abortion, it does not want an outright ban.

Continued support for the Republican Party by Catholic pro-lifers, in fact, is doing positive harm to the pro-life cause. Much of today's Republican Party is far more retrograde than 30 years ago. Its extremist wing seeks the shredding of the social safety net, defends the right to bear Kalashnikovs and Bushmaster assault rifles, promotes unending foreign war and engages in voter suppression tactics worthy of the ugliest segregationists.

Authentic pro-lifers, furthermore, should not want their public face to be men like former Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri, who opposed abortion in cases of rape and incest because "in legitimate rape" the female body knows how to reject the sperm. Catholics should run away from these people, not be sucked into unholy alliance with them. They only bring disgrace and discredit to the pro-life movement.

But in reflecting on these political realities, Catholics should not lose sight of first principles. The premise of the pro-life movement must be about saving lives, not winning elections or even changing laws. In these circumstances, Cardinal Bernardin's call for a consistent ethic of life must be a central guidepost. Open dialogue is more critical now than ever. And this dialogue should take as its starting point Bernardin's reminder that those who contend for the protection of the unborn must "be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker."

Pro-lifers could also learn valuable lessons from other nations that allow for essentially unrestricted access to abortion but that simultaneously have far lower rates of abortion than the United States. What these nations have in common are robust levels of social support. Their national health services ensure adequate levels of pre-natal and post-natal care. Women receive months of paid maternity leave. Subsidized day care and other social services are widely available. And these nations are not stingy. They see children, even vulnerable, at-risk children, as valued members of the community, whose growth and well-being and flourishing should be assured.

Catholics have a rich theological heritage committed to the building of just social structures. The medieval Thomistic tradition understood the state as an affirmative instrument of social good. And this tradition has continued into our own age. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII gave birth to the modern social teaching of the Church with his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pius XI coined the expression "social justice" in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. And 20th and 21st century popes have conferred depth and meaning and specificity to these claims in a variety of venues.

As a Catholic and a pro-lifer, I ardently hope, indeed, I pray, that the pro-life cause abandons a path that had led to 40 years of failure and chooses a new direction. For if it does not, in 10 years' time or in 20, the pro-life movement will appear as crankish and irrelevant to American life as the Prohibition Party or the old-time Whigs.