Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy or unhappy anniversary? The Catholic Church and Roe v. Wade

While I hadn’t considered writing about this until just today, it seemed that I could not let the 38th anniversary of the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in regard to Roe v. Wade go without a bit of commentary. The President celebrates the anniversary as a pro-choice victory while pro-lifers gather in our nation’s capitol to march in protest and in remembrance of all of the innocent lives lost. It is clear that on the matter of abortion we are a nation divided. So much has been said about this already that I have little new to offer but my own opinion and insights into how the Catholic Church in America has responded to the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, and a word of hope to the often unrecognized victims of abortion – the mothers and fathers of the aborted babies.

First, a brief history of Roe v. Wade for anyone who needs a refresher – in 1969, Norma L. McCorvey was unexpectedly pregnant with her third child, and under the advice of friends she claimed that she had been raped in the hopes of getting an abortion under the Texas laws at the time. She was unable to obtain the desired abortion, as there was no police documentation of the alleged rape. She later admitted to having lied about the rape, but two female attorneys represented Covey under the alias Jane Roe against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, who represented the state of Texas. Eventually the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, resulting in an unprecedented ruling in Roe’s favor (despite the fact that Jane Roe's appeal was "moot" because she had already given birth to her child and thus would not be affected by the ruling; and that she also lacked "standing" to assert the rights of other pregnant women). While the decision was considered juridically unsound by some people on both sides of this issue, abortion was legalized in the United States on January 22, 1973 through this ruling in favor of Jane Roe (who interestingly later became a Christian and pro-life advocate).

I think there is far less question and controversy today over when human life begins than there was at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision. While Barack Obama claimed during his presidential candidacy that it was above his pay grade to answer questions about when human life begins, I think there is little doubt now (even among the secular scientific community) about human life beginning at the time of conception. I believe that these days, many people who consider themselves pro-choice don’t really like the idea of abortion, but view it rather as a necessary evil.

The view of the Catholic Church, however, is quite clear – human life begins at conception, and should be preserved from that time until natural death (barring very serious circumstances wherein a criminal presents an extreme danger to the community and cannot be reasonably contained). For a beautiful explanation of the views of the Catholic Church on the preservation of human life, I strongly recommend Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which even changed the views of an atheist friend of mine on the death penalty:

Sadly, in addition to the many lives lost through abortion since Roe v. Wade, another unfortunate effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is the division brought about among American Catholics, particularly in the political realm. Since I have only been alive in the post-Roe v. Wade world, I am basing what I say here on what I’ve read and heard from others. It seems that, prior to Roe v. Wade, many American Catholics aligned themselves with the Democratic party, based on the party’s tendency to support public policy pertaining to issues of social justice, including care for the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed. However, after Roe v. Wade, many Catholics felt that they could no longer belong to the Democratic party and scorned those who did, while some of those who remained Democrats felt slighted and attacked by now-Republican Catholics who did not believe that there could be any such thing as a pro-life Democrat. 

As I reflect on this unfortunate matter of division among American Catholics, I cannot help but think of tomorrow’s second Mass reading taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Is Christ divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17)

While Catholics are encouraged -- no, required -- to participate in public life and to exercise a well-formed conscience in this arena, we are not called first to belong to the Democrats or Republicans (or Libertarians, Independents, or whatever else). We are called first to belong to God, who asks us to choose and to defend human life.

We can do that in many ways. Since pro-life prayer vigils and marches aren’t everyone’s scene (though they certainly can be praiseworthy events if done with proper respect and decorum), some are called to be pro-life in other ways -- to do things as simple as loving and encouraging a pregnant mom, being part of a support network for a single mom you know (so that the prospect of being a single mom won’t seem so incredibly hopeless for those who choose abortion for this reason), or smiling the next time you see someone with a large family in a public place. It’s true that small gestures of kindness can make a big difference – they can even save lives. Read this article if you want proof:

The last thing I want to mention here is the trauma suffered by post-abortive mothers … and fathers. I think so many pro-life advocates are focused on the use of rhetorical devices to bring to the light the true tragedy of the many pre-born human lives lost to abortion that they forget that there are others, still living, who have suffered tragedy and injustice. I know people who’ve gone through abortions, some many years ago and some more recently, and all of them have told me of the terrible emotional and physical aftermath of abortion. Many of those same people have told me of the healing experienced through Rachel’s Vineyard, a ministry of Priests for Life that is open to any men or women who have suffered the pain of abortion. Won’t you consider sharing this site with someone you know who’s had an abortion or someone who works in ministry or counseling? I have heard nothing but good things of the work they do.

And for anyone interested in the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director who had two abortions herself, check out her blog and order a copy of her new book, “Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader's Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line.” I’d love to bring her here as a speaker sometime – she has a witness that will deeply touch every person, I think.

As always, I keep all of my readers in prayer. Peace and all good to you and your families!
~ Leslie


  1. I received the book "unPlanned" last week and I stayed up late to read it...all of it. I couldn't put it down. It was an amazing story.

    I know a handful of friends who have had abortions. Each of them have their own reasons for why. My heart broke with them as they told me their stories. Not one of them was proud of what they did. One's husband threatened to leave her if she didn't have an abortion, not once but twice. One didn't think she could put her parents through her second pregnancy in her teens. Another had two when she was in a wild and crazy stage. One is now divorced and can't believe she stayed with her husband. One went on to have eight children and mourns her children. The other just doesn't talk about the baby she aborted. She says it doesn't bother her. So much sadness.

  2. sevaral thoughts thoughts come to mind:
    - the first is that people often forget that 'Ms. Roe' who won her case allowing her to have an abortion is a strong pro-life advocate - I would not say her position switched so much as it 'evolved' like so many of the rest of us...

    -the second, often over looked in public policy discussion regarding abortion is the un-holy tilt towards the death of girls, of
    minorities, and the poor; the African-american population (and voting bloc) has been discimated by abortion and the effects it will have on Africa and China will take centuries to recooperate; if it was just a matter of sometimes women decide to have abortions that's one type of political arguement but in reality its much more heanous than that - some gov'ts specific plan for social development is the killing of children; this was brought up by a Chinese Catholic political prisoner on the World Over on EWTN and they keep contrasting the squads of chinese officials forcing their poor into abortions they don't want with Obama's statement -'well, we got pandas now...'

    -thirdly, the concept of planned parenthood stems directly out of the discredite and immoral field of eugenics - the same science that Hitler and the Nazis followed regardint their final solution; there is not one thing American in the idea that our lives would be better if a select group of people die and yet now, history is so ignored, college students are out their argueing that G.Washington and A. Lincoln won their wars for the right to an abortion protected by their 1st amendment - most arguements about where eugenics comes from and its legitimacy as a science are ahistorical

    -fourthly, the law itself never said what pro-choice people say it said; specifically, there was a graduated scale of public/gov't repsonsibility in which 0-3 was pure indiv responsibility, 6-9 was indiv/gov't responsibility (this is why late-term abortion laws are being upheld though there is still some legalities to be settled) and from 3-6 months it depends... but it never said that a woman can do what ever she wants because its her body...

  3. I am very much looking forward to reading all of "Unplanned," Denise -- I read the first chapter online, but don't have a copy of the book yet. And I have the feeling that Johnson's first-hand account will reveal many of the far-from-noble motives of Planned Parenthood that you mention above, Matthew. Also, here's an article I found (originally posted on USCCB's website) titled "Ten Legal Reasons to Reject Roe" that you might enjoy, Matthew -- I've only skimmed it so far, but it looks interesting:

    Thank you both for reading, and for your comments!