Dobbs could be the beginning of the end for the pro-life movement—unless we step up to the challenge.
I was expecting the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, but the news still brought tears to my eyes. It surprised me, because I have never been much of a crier. It was a long-awaited day, though. Pro-lifers had prayed, worked and hoped for this for so many years. We knew it was quite possible, and even likely, that the day would never come. It was just a hope, coupled with a great many prayers.
That dream influenced my entire adult life. Indeed, my pro-life convictions set me apart well before I came of age, marking me as an eclectic reactionary on the high-school debate team, and then in the Peace Corps and graduate school. Those convictions eventually led me to work in right-wing media, where I learned a lot more about the political right’s warts and weaknesses. My view of religious traditionalists is not rose-tinted. They have many shortcomings and have made many mistakes. But on June 24, 2022, I could only think about the way they kept the torch burning through countless dark, cold hours. We were not at all sure the dawn would come. But it came.
Pro-lifers had prayed, worked and hoped for this for so many years. We knew it was quite possible, and even likely, that the day would never come.
I have ruminated before, both privately and in public, about the risks the overturn of Roe v. Wade might hold for the pro-life movement. Historically, opposition to abortion solidified into a movement largely in response to Roe. Without the clear goal of overturning Roe, the movement might fragment. Disagreements about reproductive ethics, gender roles or the appropriate role of the state might drive wedges between old allies. Some members of the movement might just wallow in reactionary bitterness, especially if they had naïve expectations about a post-Roe world. Perhaps a more secular and nationalist post-Christian right will push the pro-life movement further to the margins of the public square. I worry about all of these possibilities.
At the same time, I know that there are many others, like me, for whom pro-life convictions have been morally formative. They have changed us even as the world has changed around us. Decades ago, it was commonplace among pro-life Christians to believe that abortion was the bitter fruit of a grasping feminism and that we somehow needed to “roll back” the sexual revolution.
There are still people who think that way, but the movement as a whole has changed. It had to change because the old paradigms no longer made sense. Over the years, it became increasingly clear that abortion was being practiced in societies across the world, including some that still embraced traditional gender roles, shunned homosexuality and rejected feminism. New life is precious, but it entails onerous obligations. People can have many reasons for shrinking from these burdens.
We cannot protect the unborn simply by defeating something or rolling back cultural developments. We must build something.
It is not enough, therefore, to discourage hook-up culture, or combat radical strains of feminism. We cannot protect the unborn simply by defeating something or rolling back cultural developments. We must build something. We must create the sort of society in which all lives are valued and protected. If this is understood simply as a recovery project, it will not succeed. Of course, given the prevalence of abortion across the world, we have to recognize that the task is exceedingly difficult. We sometimes compare abortion to genocide, but genocide is relatively rare and always widely condemned, while abortion is tolerated to at least some extent in most modern societies. After clearing the judicial barrier, therefore, we find ourselves facing many more. How can a modern Western nation move away from abortion when the trend lines have in general gone the other way?
The Dobbs decision turned a page, which could be the beginning of the end for the pro-life movement. But it could be a good kind of beginning if we can be big enough and brave enough to step up to the challenge. We need new political strategies, but also persuasive messages, to help younger generations understand more clearly how a pro-life commitment can be part of the answer to questions that most trouble them: What does it mean to live with integrity? What do we owe to one another, as citizens and as fellow human beings? What gives life real meaning? We need young people to see the embrace of life as a way forward, in a world that seems saturated in greed and despair.
It could be that our years of praying, working and hoping were really a kind of apprenticeship, giving us a chance to work through all the facets of the pro-life position before embarking on this new and more transformative project. This could be our turning point. This could be the point where our work really begins.
Or that might just be the foolish optimism of an eclectic reactionary. Maybe the pro-life movement is running on fumes, in no condition to seize this new day. I want to try, though. Sometimes hope can take us a long way.