Roe Overturned: Now What?
On June 24, the Supreme Court handed down their 6-3 decision on Dobbs vs. Planned Parenthood overturning the 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade establishing a federal right to abortion across all 50 states. What does this mean for our nation now?
Abortion, while being a very straightforward moral issue (the intentional killing of an innocent human life is a grave evil) is a complex social issue and a hot-button political issue. It is also often framed as a religious issue.
It is no secret that the Catholic Church teaches (and has taught since the first century) that abortion is a grave moral evil. All human beings, no matter their age, size, race, gender or social status, are creatures made in God’s image with innate dignity, deserving of love and respect, including the fundamental right to life. Five of the six Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe are Catholic. Scandalously, some of the most prominent pro-abortion politicians in our country are also Catholic, including our current president and Speaker of the House. In the weeks since the draft decision suggesting the court was prepared to overturn Roe was leaked, there have been multiple acts of vandalism committed against Catholic Churches across the USA, and the lives of the Supreme Court justices have been threatened. We can expect this to continue. But it is important to remember that abortion is not just a Catholic issue. It is a human issue.
At the annual March for Life that takes place in Washington, DC, every January on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Catholics march alongside Protestants, members of non-Christian faiths, and atheists who all understand and value the right to life for all people, including the unborn. It is important now that members of the Catholic Church continue to work alongside people of all faiths and backgrounds to continue to build a culture of life. This will require people on all sides to think rationally and act charitably.
To do this we need to discuss facts and not talking points. This will require us to think critically and cut through the political jargon. For example, I’ve heard many reporters say that the Supreme Court “has overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.” This is misleading. The Supreme Court cannot overturn the constitution. It is more accurate to say that the Supreme Court has recognized that the constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion, as was erroneously claimed in Roe v. Wade. (Read the constitution yourself).
I’ve also heard several commentators remark that it is unprecedented for the Supreme Court to overturn prior court rulings, and that doing so is dangerous and disruptive to society. In fact, the Supreme Court has overturned prior court decisions many times over its history (at least 233 times according to information on Congress.gov), and that’s a good thing. We want a court that is able to reverse itself when prior decisions are wrong. One of the most famous examples of the Supreme Court reversing a former ruling is the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring that previous court rulings upholding racial segregation in fact violated the 14th amendment. The Supreme Court is not infallible and it needs to be able to correct course when prior rulings have been unjust.
I have likewise heard it claimed that the Dobbs decision will open the door to ban contraception, same-sex marriage, or will lead to criminal prosecutions of women who suffer miscarriages. This is all fear-mongering rhetoric. This Supreme Court decision does none of these things.
Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden have both issued statements characterizing the Supreme Court justices as being “extremists” and “radicals” who are operating from religious ideologies instead of the law. This is inflammatory rhetoric that fails to engage with actual facts. What are the facts? The Supreme Court has neither outlawed abortion nor established a right to life for the unborn. What it did by overturning Roe was remove a major obstacle to lawmakers seeking to regulate abortion in their states. In other words, the justices have placed the decision about whether and to what extent abortion should be permitted up to individual states’ normal legislative bodies, which is where it belongs (laws are meant to be made by the legislative branch, not the judicial branch of our government). This means in some states abortion will be outlawed, while in other states it will continue to be easily available or available with restrictions. In any case, the question will be decided through each state’s normative legislative procedures.
This means we can expect to have many more political conversations about abortion in the months and years to come, which on the whole is a good thing. Why do I say this? Consider abortion laws in most other nations. Europe is often characterized as more secular and liberal than the United States, but most European nations allow abortion only during very early stages of pregnancy and permit it only for rare exceptions later on. This is because abortion laws in Europe were established through the usual legislative process, meaning lawmakers had to have serious discussions about to what extent abortion should be permitted. This process led to abortion laws much more akin to what states like Mississippi and Alabama have been trying to enact.
By contrast, the 1973 Roe decision established by judicial fiat a universal right to abortion through all stages in pregnancy. This has put America more in line with the abortion policies of communist countries such as Russia and North Korea, making it very hard for states to regulate abortion in any way for the past 50 years. For example, efforts by states to ban the horrific practice of partial-birth abortion have repeatedly failed, as have attempts to ban abortions for reason of race or gender selection. Any restriction on abortion at all has been viewed as undermining the rights established in Roe.
In the weeks, months, and years to come, the legislative bodies of all fifty states will now have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and decide for themselves to what extent abortion will be permitted. Hopefully, this will allow our lawmakers to have frank and open discussions about what abortion really is — not healthcare or a “reproductive service” but the ending of an innocent human life — and whether or not permitting it is good for our society.
While the overturning of Roe is very good news indeed for pro-life advocates, in one sense our job just got harder, because instead of one front, we now have fifty fronts to work on. Abortion will continue to be an issue in national, state and local elections for many years to come. The job of faithful Catholics and all people of good will is to continue to build a culture of life; a culture where women are supported before, during and after pregnancy, a culture in which all people are valued, regardless of their age, race, gender or ability — in other words, a culture in which ending a helpless, innocent life because it inconveniences us has become an unthinkable “choice.”