March for Life
Posted on January 24, 2011
For the last 37 years, on January 24th, thousands of people, mostly Catholics but some assorted others, have come to Washington D.C. and marched around the Capitol building, ending up right outside the Supreme Court.
They come every year to protest what must be one of the most controversial and unpopular decisions ever reached by that august body: Roe V. Wade.
The pastor of my parish church, Father Byrne reminded us yesterday that the marchers were coming to town. As usual, St. Peter’s, which is about a block from the Capitol, plays host to them, giving encouragement, shelter, food, drink and a place to use the restroom.
Byrne gave a nice homily at Mass, less fire and brimstone, and more about putting it all in perspective. His point is that Catholics should not care only about children before they are born. They should care about people at all stages of life, from beginning to end, and to have a proper respect and awe for the gift of life that has been bestowed to all of us breathing creatures. He made an important point that is frequently lost in this overheated debate: The job of the church is to convince desperate women who are hurting that they have other choices when they think that they have only one.
The upcoming march and Father Byrne’s talk inspired me to read the Roe V. Wade decision. A couple of things jumped out at me.
First, this decision was very much reached amid a cultural, sociological and sexual revolution, despite the best protestations of some of the justices. It can only be understood in the context of the 1970’s, in the heat of the tumult of a country where everybody was questioning all assumptions, where the “me-generation” reigned supreme.
This was not an era that made great philosophical statements about social cohesion and higher spiritual truths. It was all about sex, drugs and rock and roll.
If you read the decision carefully, you can almost hear “Age of Aquarius” playing in the background.
Harry Blackmun actually mentioned in his majority opinion that “population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem.”
What the hell do these issues have to do with this case, I asked myself.
Unless you believe that having more abortions would help with population growth, pollution, poverty and the race problem (as liberals did believe at the time), than those issues have very little to do with whether a pregnant woman has the right to end her pregnancy.
Blackmun went on to say, “Our task, of course, is to resolve the issue by constitutional measurement, free of emotion and of predilection.” Well, I would hope so!
Most of Roe V Wade is recitation of the history of abortion law. Blackmun concluded, in what surely must be wishful thinking on his part, “Ancient religion did not bar abortion.”
He implies that Hippocrates, whose famous Oath was consistently anti-abortion, wasn’t a typical Greek, but rather a member of a fringe group. He said that English common law didn’t preclude abortion before “quickening”, which is the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, which happens from the 16th to the 18th week of pregnancy. Blackmun then said that even in the U.S., abortion in the states in the first trimester was usually punished as manslaughter, not murder.
Blackmun’s point? “It is thus apparent that at common law, at the time of the adoption of our Constitution, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, abortion was viewed with less disfavor than under most American statutes currently in effect. Phrasing it another way, a woman enjoyed a substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy than she does in most States today.”
His conclusion: We must go back to the past to protect the liberties of women in the future.
William Douglas pretty much summed up his deep philosophical view of the matter: “A woman is free to make the basic decision whether to bear an unwanted child. Elaborate argument is hardly necessary to demonstrate that childbirth may deprive a woman of her preferred lifestyle and force upon her a radically different and undesired future.”
So, it is all about convenience huh?
Byron White, in his dissent, summed it up pretty nicely: “At the heart of the controversy in these cases are those recurring pregnancies that pose no danger whatsoever to the life or health of the mother but are, nevertheless, unwanted for any one or more of a variety of reasons -- convenience, family planning, economics, dislike of children, the embarrassment of illegitimacy, etc. The common claim before us is that, for any one of such reasons, or for no reason at all, and without asserting or claiming any threat to life or health, any woman is entitled to an abortion at her request if she is able to find a medical advisor willing to undertake the procedure. With all due respect, I dissent….As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.
One of the interesting assertions made in this decision is that the anti-abortion laws passed in the late 19th century were enacted to protect women from the procedure, which could actually be very dangerous. Blackmun goes on to say that because abortion procedures were now much safer for women, the abortion laws should be changed to allow them to get them. In other words, scientific progress has made it possible for abortions to be done more safely (unless, of course, you are a fetus).
But if scientific progress has made it safer for women to have abortions, it has also made it safer for premature babies to be born. And if science has helped promote abortions, it has certainly also helped us see how early in the process human beings become real, feeling, breathing little people. It is hard to know when the soul comes, but it is easy to find out when the cells become more than just little cells. And it happens awfully early, earlier than previously understood.
It is worth rereading Roe V. Wade, no matter what your position on the issue. It certainly is a product of the times from which it was decided. But as Bob Dylan once sung, the times, they are changing. And hopefully, the times will change how we look at Roe V. Wade.
The marchers are coming to Washington, as they do every year at this time. The media has long since given up on covering their message or their numbers. Instead, they cover their impact on traffic. But the marchers are making a difference. They are changing hearts and minds.