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Life after Roe v. Wade?

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 20, 2004

Next month, Americans on both sides of the abortion debate will either celebrate or mourn the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The occasion will be marked by pro-life promises that the Supreme Court decision will one day be overturned and pro-choice warnings that such a reversal is imminent unless their supporters act now. But unlike in past years, there may be more to these predictions than fundraising-appeal hyperbole.

In the last election, pro-lifers gained in both houses of Congress and President Bush, who opposes abortion in most cases, won a second term with a popular majority. These results, followed by the Senate GOP's apparent taming of Arlen Specter, will expedite the confirmation of judges who believe Roe was wrongly decided. And the legislative momentum was already on the right-to-life side. In the last few years, Congress has passed laws banning partial-birth abortion, making it easier for medical personnel to opt out of participating in abortions, protecting fetuses that survive abortion attempts and recognizing unborn children as separate victims when killed or injured during assaults on pregnant women.

This trend is not merely observed by conservative Republicans. No less a liberal pro-choice advocate than Sen. John Kerry, fresh from his 2004 presidential-election defeat, has urged his party to moderate its rhetoric on abortion. In the next Congress, Senate Democrats will be led by a pro-lifer. A pro-lifer is also a serious candidate to head the Democratic National Committee, with the support not only of incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid but also pro-choice House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

A number of current events and technological developments have helped increase pro-life sentiment. Improved ultrasounds show expectant mothers not blobs of cells or some amorphous product of conception, but images of their developing offspring that might as well be prenatal baby pictures. In the Scott Peterson trial, news watchers were regularly reminded that there were two victims and that the loss of Laci's unborn son Conner was no less real to the family they left behind. Just last week, a pregnant woman was slain and her unborn child was taken from her womb by her killer. The Associated Press reported that the baby girl -- not a ball of tissue -- was found and was in good condition at this writing.

All of this has demonstrated the humanity of the unborn more powerfully than most political activism, and in the process has begun to change some minds. Even many who were once dogmatically pro-choice and still oppose aspects of the right-to-life agenda are starting to question some of their certitudes. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is among them. He recently observed that in the 1966 original production of the film Alfie, a woman close to the title character has an abortion. In this year's remake starring Jude Law, she does not. "Abortion is no longer seen as central to sexual liberation," wrote Cohen, "but rather as much more troubling and problematic."

James Pinkerton surveyed the pro-life gains and declared in Newsday, "On abortion, the tide has turned." But writing later in Tech Central Station, he sounded a cautionary note. If antiabortion laws were adopted, how enforceable would they be in liberal jurisdictions? Would progressive district attorneys prosecute abortionists and would juries in bluish areas convict them?

After all, our country - with its more than 1 million abortions per year - remains deeply divided over when human life begins. Not everyone with moral concerns about abortion fully endorses pro-lifers' conclusions.

It's not merely a question of whether some pro-lifers would overreach politically in the event that Roe finally fell. Some undoubtedly would, just as the case could be made that some pro-lifers might already be overreaching in response to what was simply a successful election cycle. But ultimately, the more important question is how we can most effectively protect pre-born life, in fact as well as law.

Cultural transformation is as essential to the success of the pro-life cause as political victories, if not more so. It's true that the law can be a teacher -- as Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote some years ago in First Things, "culture and law do not exist in two separate, hermetically sealed containers." But law is a blunt and imperfect tool; rarely can it create a cultural consensus out of whole cloth where none exists.

"This is why the fight against legal abortion cannot stand alone," the Christian writer Frederica Mathewes-Green once explained. "If we could padlock all the abortion clinics tomorrow, we'd see the next morning a line 3200 women long pounding on the doors." The idea, described by Pinkerton in his fascinating Tech Central Station essay, that "the best way to guarantee a cultural shift is to punish a few outlying miscreants" may have it exactly backwards. A cultural shift in which more Americans adhered to pro-life views while pro-lifers themselves increased their support of alternatives for women in crisis pregnancies might make changes in the law more workable.

Pro-lifers should be gratified by political advances and new optimism in the legal struggle against Roe. But they -- we -- should never forget that much of the work that remains to be done is outside the realm of law and politics entirely.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

 

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