By Jeff Olson
Forty-seven years ago this week, January 22, 1973, the “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court decision was issued. The history of abortion in our country is quite lengthy and complex.
According to common law tradition inherited by United States from England, abortion before “quickening,” (or when the baby’s movements could be felt) was not a crime. In 1821, Connecticut adopted a portion of a British law and passed the first U.S. law banning abortion after quickening. At the time of the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, twenty states (out of thirty-seven) restricted abortion. By the 1950s, almost every state banned all abortions except when necessary to save the mother’s life.
In the 1960s, a shift began. Thirteen states opened access to abortion and thirty-one states allowed it only to save the life of the mother. In 1970 a Texas woman, under the pseudonym Jane Roe, challenged her state abortion law on the basis of a right of privacy.
The U.S. Constitution does not include a right of privacy. However, the Court held that Bill of Rights protections of free speech, assembly and religious exercise, freedom from forced quartering of troops, unreasonable searches and seizures, and forced self-incrimination create “zones of privacy.” And, the 9th Amendment’s protection of unenumerated rights could be said to protect privacy. These “zones” the Court held are places into which the government cannot unreasonably intrude. Roe claimed that the law robbed her of her right of privacy as protected by the combination of Bill of Rights amendments and of her liberty as protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The subject of rights was at the forefront of America’s founding and has been in much of America’s social and political discourse and activism in the public square since. However, the classical/traditional concept of rights was simply the freedom to act by your conscience without interference, and it was understood that with each right came a corresponding duty. A right had originally never been understood as a positive conveyance. Today, the language of rights is used to give moral force to what are often merely personal desires. Among the plethora of claimed rights in recent history are reproductive rights and the exclusive right to one’s own body, but here is some food for thought: All human rights are predicated first and foremost on the right to life, and it is the sanctity and dignity of human life which provide the cornerstone upon which all justice and freedom stand. However, there can be neither justice nor freedom if life has no source, value or meaning beyond what only humans subjectively define as acceptable and legitimate.
In Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court rejected this fundamental moral premise, and in addition: marginalized the federalism inherent in our constitution, disregarded cultural/community norms and moral sensibilities, failed to consider shifting social trends inherent in a free society, and circumvented the legislative process. The result: a decision based not on original constitutional intent or principle nor on historic jurisprudence or precedent but on a highly flawed interpretation and adjudication of six of the ten amendments constituting the Bill of Rights, and insufficient (or no) consideration of the ethical and medical aspects of human conception and prenatal life. Therefore the Court created (legislated) a national law redefining a right of privacy as an avenue for the elimination of a God-given right to life. Perhaps it would have been prudent for the Court to take a closer look at (among other things) the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Court’s ideological and explicit rejection of the fetal “right to life” argument has had fatal consequences for tens of millions of unborn babies and left an untold and immeasurable void that only their presence, love, and unique gifts could have filled in the lives of families and contributed to our society and culture.
History has shown that the value of human life is the thread that connects virtually all humanitarian causes and it is at the root of most every major question facing humanity today. As President Ronald Reagan expressed it in 1988, “We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life – the unborn – without diminishing the value of all human life…” Norma L. McCorvey (Roe in Roe vs Wade) revealed in 1995 that she became pro-life. In her testimony to Congress in an effort to have Roe v. Wade overturned, she stated “It was my pseudonym, Jane Roe, which had been used to create the “right” to abortion out of legal thin air.” From then on she dedicated herself to pro-life work, starting her own ministry, “Roe No More,” in 1997. McCorvey passed away in 2017.
In looking back, there have been nearly 62 million abortions in the United States since Roe vs Wade. In looking ahead, we must be attentive and proactive to what kind of society we will be and what kind of government we will choose. Do we want a culture of life, one which is responsible in protecting the rights of human beings whose dignity and worth depend not on their convenience to individuals or their utility to the state but on their inherent value from and to God and to those individuals and families who choose to love them? Beyond just a matter of personal choice, the right to life is a foundational determinant and safeguard for all basic (“unalienable”) human rights, individual freedom, an enduring moral order, and stable self-government. And, it will continue to define who we are – individually and as a nation.