An Anniversary

Can we stand one more discussion of Roe v. Wade on this twenty-fifth anniversary of that incredibly divisive opinion?

Can we stand one more discussion of Roe v. Wade on this twenty-fifth anniversary of that incredibly divisive opinion?

The ongoing and emotional public debate that Roe generated is generally seen as a conflict between adamant abortion opponents and ardent abortion proponents. Certainly two polar groups exist. There are those who would outlaw the procedure under all circumstances, who believe that it is never morally appropriate, even in cases of rape or to save the life of the mother. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that a fetus is nothing more than a clump of undifferentiated cells, and that the woman whose body harbors those cells should be allowed to dispose of them for any reason, if she wishes to do so. Both groups, I suspect, are quite small.

Most Americans (as poll after poll confirms) hold far more nuanced opinions. Many agree with a good friend of mine, who is morally opposed to abortion. My friend’s religious convictions would prevent her from having an abortion herself, and she has counselled others against having one. But she is unwilling to allow the government to make that choice for individual women. She recognizes the moral ambiguities that can arise in different circumstances, making "one size fits all" moral prescriptions unworkable. She recognizes that a government with power to take that decision away from individuals would pose a significant threat to her own moral autonomy and her right to make personal decisions based upon her own religious beliefs; that a government with power to tell women they cannot abort can just as easily tell women that they must abort.

There is no religious or moral consensus about abortion. Different religions have very different teachings on the issue, and highly ethical people have come to dramatically different conclusions. In such cases, government in a free society must be limited to assuring that all points of view are freely debated and expressed, that all religious perspectives are respected. It is not the role nor the responsibility of the state to impose the beliefs of some citizens on others who hold different, but equally firm, convictions.

Recently, even some prominent abortion opponents have concluded that the battle must be for the hearts and minds of the American public, not for control of the legislative branch of government. Those who believe that abortion is wrong have a moral duty to persuade others to accept that point of view. Such persuasion is more difficult than passing a law, but it is also more effective; laws that are widely seen as improper tend to be widely ignored and eventually repealed.

What gets lost in all the emotional rhetoric about abortion is that Roe v. Wade really wasn’t about abortion. It was about the proper role of government in a society that respects religious liberty.