A TRAGIC ANNIVERSARY
On the day after the inauguration of a new president, many in the nation will pause and pray on the occasion of a tragic national anniversary. On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court did the previously unthinkable – it found a new right never before discovered or defined in the near two hundred years of the U.S. Constitution – a personal right to privacy. Thus began a period of federal protection for abortion and a legal hostility to pre-born life in the womb. It is said that Chief Justice Warren Burger later came to deeply regret that he had participated in the majority opinions of Roe versus Wade and Doe versus Bolton but it makes little matter now. Each year, millions of pre-born children die in their mother’s womb.
Prior to 1973, abortion on request existed in many of the states but there were other states where the moral concerns of the citizenry made abortion illegal. In one fell swoop of the pen, the real “Supremes” of the period made abortion a federally, constitutionally protected right and took the matter out of the hands of state legislators, governors and the people themselves. What there was of a pro-life movement at the time was not caught by surprise but overwhelmed by the argument guaranteeing abortion on request – anything goes in the first trimester of pregnancy, very limited protection of the preborn child in the second and grudgingly in the third the state could if it so chose to do so offer some limited protections to the new life. Over the years, the federal courts have generally erased the fallacious trimester division of pregnancy and made it “anything goes at any time.”
In the intervening years the pro-life cause has had some successes, some failures and some instances where the jury is still out. On the successful side of the ledger, legislation has been passed and protected (legally) outlawing the horrific “partial birth abortion” procedure. That was a significant moment. When the Republicans occupy the White House, federal funds can not generally be used to pay for abortions and they are forbidden in federal hospitals but enter the Democrats and executive orders to the contrary are issued. Some of the states have been successful in passing and sustaining requirements prior to the performance of an abortion which cut down on the number somewhat (parental notification, for example) but even the present “conservative” Supreme Court can not always be counted on to support these legislative initiatives.
Catholics embrace “abortion on request” in the same percentage as the general population. That is a painful reality to Church leadership and the pro-life movement. Elections become a time of bitter and frenzied activity and in their wake, elections are followed by recriminations, anger and frustration. Abortion has become so highly politicized an issue that it is seldom spoken of from the pulpits of our Churches. Bishops speak but who listens?
In 1973 the bishops of the United States asked me to found a national pro-life organization which might help shape the national debate in favor of a “Human Life Amendment” to the United States Constitution. The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment still exists but today as a nation we are no closer to protecting human life in this manner than on the day after Doe. I believe that Catholics, like others, are increasingly turned off by the shrillness of the debate and so it is becoming harder and harder to teach the core issue – the dignity of life in the womb which is in need of protection.
Polls consistently show that regular Church-going Catholics oppose abortion-on-request at a much higher percentage than those who simply indicate that they were baptized Catholic but do not practice. Getting more of the baptized to attend Mass and become more closely attached to their Church and its long-held belief that human life begins at conception then becomes not only a pastoral priority but it also might just have political consequences. Nothing is going to change in this country without a common, majority consensus that abortion kills an innocent child already forming in their mother’s womb in the image and likeness of God. It seems to me sometimes that we ask those in elected office to accomplish what we ourselves have been unable to do.
Most laws in the history of this nation become so much a part of the fabric of life so quickly that the citizenry soon forgets them, their positive and negative effects, and life goes on. This is often correctly referred to as “the educative effect of law.” Not so with abortion. Thanks to in large part the pro-life movement which never gives up, this anniversary will be noted as those before it, with prayers, marches, demonstrations, etc. As long as an innocent child is dying because of abortion on request, we will never say die.
Logic and reason and indisputable science will ultimately carry the day on this matter; ecclesiastical penalties and sanctions will only inflame and exacerbate those within our religious communion who have not yet embraced the pro-life cause. I believe that this was proven in November. Cardinal George was “spot-on” in his presidential speech in November when he reminded us that bad, immoral laws do not always stand the test of time – Dred Scott for example. It was the nation that educated the Court in that one and not vice versa. Let us pray that we may have the same opportunity in our lifetime.