Next month will mark the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the flawed U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned most laws restricting abortion in America. The official anniversary will be Jan. 22, two days after another historic milestone, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s 44th president. These two events should provoke serious national reflection on how to address the tragedy of abortion in this country, which Pope John Paul II rightly characterized as an affront to the dignity of the human person, undermining the very fabric of society.
While access to abortion is protected by judicial fiat, there are several strategies the new president could employ that would reduce the number of abortions. He could appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court committed to the sanctity of human life and to a more reasonable and moral view of the right to privacy than the one expressed in Roe. He could keep in place the restraints on abortion imposed by executive order during the George W. Bush administration. He could veto the Freedom of Choice Act, in the event that it reaches his desk, and he could fight any effort to repeal the Hyde Amendment, the federal law that bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
Mr. Obama should do all of these things. He is not likely, however, to do any of them. That is political reality. Though pro-life activists should not exempt the new president from moral suasion, nor abandon efforts to end access to abortion by all legal and moral means, they must realize that Mr. Obama is not at all likely to pursue policies that several committed pro-life presidents like Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush were either unwilling or unable to adopt themselves.
Instead of bemoaning this fact, pro-life activists should take seriously Mr. Obama’s promise to find ways of reducing abortions short of outlawing them. This approach may be both prudent and morally justified. As the U.S. Catholic bishops have noted, “sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and ‘the art of the possible.’”
The prudent question that pro-life advocates should pose is, What could we ask Mr. Obama and a Democratic Congress to do that they might actually do? Given that the abortion rate, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women living 300 percent or more above the poverty level, pro-life activists could work with Congress and the president to provide low-income women with health care, childcare, housing, services for disabled children and other basic supports young women especially need.
Pro-life activists could also insist on a review of federal and state welfare policies to ensure that they do not indirectly encourage abortions. This is especially important in light of the fact that there may be a correlation between the existence of state caps on children eligible for economic assistance and an increased incidence of abortion. Ad-vocates could also work with the president and Congress to increase federal funding for adoption services and comprehensive, morally acceptable sexuality education and crisis pregnancy centers, as well as support for programs to curb domestic violence and sexual abuse. All of these efforts are required by a culture that values life. As John Paul II noted, “It is not enough to remove unjust laws.... For this reason there need to be set in place social and political initiatives capable of guaranteeing conditions of true freedom of choice in matters of parenthood.”
Mr. Obama, in turn, has an ethical obligation to work with pro-life activists and others to address the problem. Aside from his moral duty to protect the unborn, the new president also made a campaign promise. During his acceptance speech last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Mr. Obama pledged to bring people together across traditional political divisions, adding that “we may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.” The new president should honor this commitment by engaging in a serious, sustained dialogue with pro-life advocates, recalling that his mandate for change does not necessarily reflect a national consensus on every issue, let alone the most divisive ones.
Over one million abortions were performed last year in the United States; over 45 million have been performed since 1973. These statistics assail the conscience of the country. We must act now to reduce seriously the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies in the United States by seizing the current moment of national unity engendered by Mr. Obama’s historic victory.