The Irrelevance of Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade? Everyone knows about that one. It completely ignored the will of the people, and utterly denied democratic debate over the issue by judicial fiat. And today, more than 50 million babies have been legally killed because of Roe.

This, more or less, is the standard line of pro-lifers when they speak of Roe v. Wade. Like an epidemic’s Patient Zero, Roe is supposed to be the place where it all began, the epicenter of great genocide which continues to this day. But now, I want to make a claim that flies in the face of what much of the pro-life community has accepted as truth: Roe was nowhere near as anti-democratic as everyone continues to assume. And while legal abortion continues to exist under the aegis of Roe, the American people deserve much of the blame that has too often been reserved only for the Supreme Court.

The flag burning case of Texas v. Johnson is a good example of a truly anti-democratic ruling. 48 states protected the flag (Alaska and Wyoming being the exceptions, and by omission rather than commission), and public sentiment was overwhelmingly, lopsidedly, in favor of these laws. Several times, Constitutional amendments to overturn the ruling came close to passing, failing not due to lack of public support, but because of a small handful of stubborn Democrats in the Senate.

In contrast, by 1973 the American people had sent the Supreme Court plenty of signals that they had, at best, ambivalence toward abortion on demand. In four states – New York, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii – unrestricted abortion was already available. Critically, in New York, there was no residency requirement; before Justice Blackmun wrote so much as a single word of Roe, any mother in America with enough money for a round-trip plane ticket already had the option of legally having their unborn child killed.

Imagine for a moment that a small number of states today started giving mothers the right to put any children in their custody under the age of 16 months to death, and imagine that, like New York, one of them had no residency requirement. Do you imagine that the rest of the country would have sat by, and not done anything about it? If the public reaction to the Casey Anthony trial is anything to go by, I’d say no.

And yet, when these four states legalized abortion in 1970, nothing is exactly what the country did. On Capitol Hill, where endless debates raged about the death tolls in the Vietnam war, there was only deafening silence about the legal execution of infants here in the homeland. In 1972, a full two years after New York’s law, Representative John G. Schmitz finally introduced a Constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to life. Few noticed, and fewer still cared. It was the only human life amendment ever introduced prior to Roe.

Roe v. Wade had the misfortune to be announced on the same day that Lyndon Johnson died, but even then, the lack of negative reaction outside of the Catholic hierarchy was palpable. Within a year, dozens of Congressmen were reporting back that polls conducted in their districts showed clear majorities supporting Roe almost everywhere. Senator Birch Bayh held a series of committee hearings about a possible human life amendment, but most Americans were too transfixed by Sam Ervin’s Watergate committee hearings to pay any heed. At the end of 1974, Nelson Rockefeller, the man responsible for New York’s abortion law, was installed as Vice President.

Again, imagine that the Supreme Court had ruled that mothers had a fundamental right to kill any children of theirs under the age of 16 months. A Constitutional amendment undoubtedly would have been quickly ratified by the states, possibly even before the end of 1973. The supermajorities required to pass the amendment would have been irrelevant. Democracy is not halted by a single aberrant Supreme Court decision, and supermajorities are generally not hard to achieve if a right as fundamental as life has been ruthlessly and baselessly attacked.

And yet, no human life amendment has even come close to passing. Furthermore, even were the Supreme Court to reverse Roe, a large number of states would undoubtedly make abortion generally legal, and while several thousand lives would be saved due to the hassle of traveling to one of these pro-chioce states, the annual death toll would still likely be around one million.

Gary North, a leader of the fringe Christian Reconstruction movement, is one of the few pro-lifers I have ever come across who seems to understand the magnitude of the problem:

The problem is that the American community agrees with the Supreme Court of the United States. The general American public agrees that abortion should be legal.

Maybe it does not agree that the third-trimester abortions should be legal, but it is not going to throw out of office the civil magistrates who enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling. In fact, the Supreme Court has authorized third-trimester abortion and any other kind of abortion, but the public will not fight it. A handful of people have fought it, but the public refuses. The voting public will not vote out of office a man who is pro- abortion. In fact, time and time again, the public re-elects those people to office…

The problem is the community. The community approves. Let us not mince words: the United States electorate approves of abortion on demand. It will not bring political sanctions against those politicians who remain silent on abortion or who actively promote abortions. The problem is in the hearts of the people. (

Exactly right: The problem is in the hearts of the people.  Not a 40 year old Supreme Court ruling. Not the pro-choice lobby. Not the abortion doctors. The problem is the essential character of Americans. The result is something somber and ominous: genocide by consent of the governed.

For forty years, pro-lifers have been waiting for the dam to break; we’ve waited for the mass, nationwide awakening of conscience that would, at last, consign abortion to the dustbin of history alongside slavery and segregation. So far, it hasn’t happened. Forty years has produced little progress, and has conditioned us to leap for joy at the most ambiguous signs of hope, like when a poll shows 51% of Americans identifying themselves as “pro-life,” a term which really doesn’t mean anything. At times, a candid assessment of abortion in America looks bleak.

Nonetheless, I keep hoping, even when the night seems endless. Luke 1:37 shows the way: “for nothing is impossible with God.”


2 responses to “The Irrelevance of Roe v. Wade

  1. Pingback: 1966-2011 – Mississippi Remains Unchanged | The Pro-lifist

  2. Pingback: Lawrence Hogan: the Original Pro-life Warrior | The Pro-lifist

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