For a response to this essay, see “Four reasons a Democratic administration would mean more abortions,” by Richard Doerflinger.
When looking for extracurricular involvement my first semester in college, I went to meetings of two groups: Right to Life and College Republicans. It was the fall of 1980, and Ronald Reagan was running on a staunch anti-abortion platform. I thought that we needed to take back control of the Supreme Court from the Democrats and overturn Roe v. Wade.
I did not realize then that there had not been a majority of Democratic appointees on the Supreme Court since 1970—three years before Roe. Many people don’t realize that this is still true today. There has been a majority of Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court for 49 of the last 50 years. The lone exception was the year after Antonin Scalia died, when there was a 4-4 split. And yet abortion is still legal. Still, many think we must vote Republican so that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the possibility that President Trump will name her replacement has further raised expectations about a reversal of Roe. But there is reason for skepticism.
There has been a majority of Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court for 49 of the last 50 years. And yet abortion is still legal.
Roe v. Wade was decided in a 7-to-2 vote by a court with a 6-to-3 Republican majority; five of the six Republican appointees voted to legalize abortion. By 1992, pro-life presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush had appointed five justices, giving the Republicans an 8-to-1 advantage, and the lone Democratic appointee, Byron White, was one of two justices who voted against the Roe decision. If ever Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned, this was the time. But when Planned Parenthood v. Casey came before the court that year, it not only failed to overturn Roe v. Wade, but also outlawed restrictions that put an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.
Twelve years later, in the run-up to the election of 2004, I was part of a panel discussion on the Catholic vote on the campus where I taught theology. My interlocutor from the philosophy department started his presentation with an infographic comparing the lives lost in the recent Iraq War to the lives lost to abortion in the United States. The latter figure ran into the tens of millions, dwarfing the war casualties. His argument came down to this: Vote Republican, save lives. What he did not realize was that his infographic undermined his own case because it clearly showed that voting Republican does not save lives. It showed that electing Republicans had not outlawed abortion in the United States. With regard to its prevalence, there has been no significant difference in abortion rates under Republican and Democratic presidents. If anything, abortion rates have fallen slightly more rapidly under Democratic presidents.
One can agree that abortion has “preeminent priority” and still see the plain fact that electing Republicans has no positive relation to outlawing or even reducing abortion nationwide.
Note that I am not repeating the common argument that abortion is only one of many life issues. One can agree with the U.S. bishops that abortion has “preeminent priority” and still see the plain fact that electing Republicans has no positive relation to outlawing or even reducing abortion nationwide. One can deplore the Democratic Party platform’s obtuse refusal even to acknowledge moral qualms about abortion, and one can acknowledge Republican efforts to act on those misgivings through attempts to limit public funding and to ban late-term abortions. But the difference between electing members of the two parties is nowhere near as dramatic as the use of the infographic in that 2004 panel discussion implied. The millions are lives lost, not lives saved, and all were lost during the Republicans’ half-century lock on the Supreme Court.
Despite Republican promises to end abortion, it has not happened. Why?
Is it because the Democrats have prevented the Republicans from putting the justices they want on the Supreme Court? No. Over the last 50 years, the Democrats have succeeded in blocking only one Republican nominee, Robert Bork in 1987, and it was not because of his views on abortion. Toward the nominees not accused of sexual misconduct, Democrats have until recently offered little resistance, even to the most conservative justices; Antonin Scalia, for example, was approved by the Senate on a 98-0 vote.
Have Republican leaders failed to achieve the reversal of Roe v. Wade because they do not really want to? This explanation is more plausible. Republicans in power have been remarkably good at realizing their top priorities: cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, increasing military spending, cutting food stamps and other safety net programs, eliminating limits on election spending by corporations, gutting environmental protection laws, maintaining a preferential option for nationalism over refugees and immigrants, supporting the easy availability of assault weapons, keeping health care a largely private and for-profit industry, greenlighting the Contras, the Iraq War, torture, the death penalty and a host of other policies that run counter to Catholic social teaching. On ending abortion, however—arguably their main selling point to Catholic voters—they have been strangely ineffectual.
Do the Republicans really want Roe v. Wade to be overturned, thus sending the issue back to the states, where it will be debated in political hand-to-hand combat? What they really want is votes. If Republicans can get them from pro-life voters without having to deliver anything substantial in return, what incentive do they have to rock the boat?
Have Republicans failed to end abortion because the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Roe v. Wade no matter who the justices are?
Have Republicans failed to end abortion because the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Roe v. Wade no matter who the justices are? This explanation is also plausible. This June, Chief Justice John Roberts—a Catholic welcomed by pro-life voters when nominated by George W. Bush—wrote the decision striking down a Louisiana law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. In doing so, Justice Roberts invoked the principle of stare decisis, the doctrine that the court should generally be bound by its own previous decisions, because the court had struck down a nearly identical law in Texas a mere four years ago. Justice Roberts’s reasoning reinforces the idea that after nearly 50 years of a Republican-dominated court regarding Roe v. Wade as settled law, the likelihood that a future court will overturn it gets increasingly remote.
Whatever the reasons that electing Republicans has not ended abortion, the simple fact remains. And yet some are convinced again in 2020 that Catholics are obliged by our faith to vote for Donald J. Trump because he will make Roe v. Wade fall (or, if he is able to name a replacement for Justice Ginsburg before the election, should be rewarded for having appointed the justice that will supposedly make Roe v. Wade fall). We are urged to overlook his constant lying, his race-baiting, his scapegoating of immigrants, his denial of climate change, his attempts at voter suppression, his prioritizing of his own re-election over fighting the coronavirus, his reactivation of federal executions and—perhaps most ominously—his refusal to commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election. All on the premise that Mr. Trump will name the Supreme Court justices who finally overturn Roe v. Wade.
After the Louisiana decision in June, Johnnie Moore, an evangelical advisor to the Trump campaign, again linked Mr. Trump’s re-election to overturning Roe v. Wade: “Conservatives know they are on the one-yard line,” he tweeted. A more apt football metaphor involves Charlie Brown and Lucy, as Charles Camosy has noted in Commonweal. The Republican Lucy is holding the football for pro-lifer Charlie Brown, swearing that this time she won’t pull the ball away at the last moment, the ball will sail through the uprights, and Roe v. Wade will be no more. We know by now how it always ends up.
The one strategy for reducing abortions that has been proven to work runs through love, not power: support for women who may not feel able to carry a pregnancy to term. This requires not blind allegiance to a political party but the promotion of a culture of life. For years, some in the pro-life movement have struggled to change the perception that opposition to abortion is about control over women. Hitching the pro-life cause to a president who has bragged about sexually assaulting women can only turn people away. The taint of Mr. Trump could well do irreversible damage to the pro-life movement and to the church itself, especially among the younger demographic. Protecting religious freedom won’t mean much if there is no one left in the churches. If ever there was a time for Charlie Brown to walk away, this is it.