One year after the end of Roe v. Wade: The hard, slow work of changing hearts and minds
During his recent visit to Budapest, Hungary, Pope Francis called abortion “senseless” and “always a tragic defeat.” He hoped instead for a Europe “centered on the human person and on its peoples, with effective policies for natality and the family…whose different nations would form a single family that protects the growth and uniqueness of each of its members.”
But while praising Hungary’s pro-family policies, Francis also criticized “self-referential forms of populism.” In a challenge to Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s hostility toward migrants, he referred to St. Stephen, who as the first king of Hungary counseled his son to show favor not only to his own people, “but also to foreigners and all who come to you.”
In Catholic social teaching, reverence for the lives of refugees and migrants and reverence for the lives of the unborn spring from the same source. Yet in Hungary and across the world, political commitment to these values is dichotomized. Politicians who oppose abortion are more and more nationalistic, seeking power by demonizing those fleeing for safety across borders. They often reject a governmental role in supporting people who are marginalized and in need.
And politicians who reject such fear-mongering and support a robust social safety net usually march in lockstep to what Pope Francis describes as a “reductive concept of freedom.” They accept abortion without critique as a requirement of autonomy for women. These leaders insist that the only way to respect and care for women is to reject any proposal for legal protection of the unborn. This incoherence presents a fundamental challenge to pro-life witness and political advocacy. As the United States approaches the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision by which the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement is still far from winning over the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.
Even voters who do not approve of abortion are skeptical of limiting it; many see such efforts as a partisan grab for power rather than a commitment to moral principle.
Many states have restricted abortion, which in the first six months after Dobbs resulted in 32,000 fewer abortions nationwide. Those laws have been extensively criticized for offering insufficient protections for women facing complicated pregnancies. And, as has been widely reported, the states with the most restrictive abortion laws also have far worse access to pregnancy care and higher maternal mortality rates than those that make abortion readily available.
One glimmer of hope, though less frequently reported, is that after Dobbs, more Republican-controlled states have accepted a federal provision to increase postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a full year, as was made possible by a Covid-19 relief bill passed in 2021. That effort is still ongoing in Texas, where initially the state Senate attempted to limit coverage to six months.
While any expansion of support for pregnant women and children is worth celebrating, the most visible pro-life efforts after Dobbs have been aimed not at improving maternal and infant health or reducing demand for abortion, but at restricting it as much as possible. At the same time, when abortion has been on the ballot as a referendum or as the key issue in a race, the pro-choice position or candidate has won again and again, even where the pro-life movement is robust.
The simplest explanation for this is that even voters who do not approve of abortion are skeptical of limiting it; many see such efforts as a partisan grab for power rather than a commitment to moral principle. This view is only reinforced by the hypocrisy of politicians who stand up for the unborn but do not support necessary health care. Or politicians who argue that legal restrictions on abortion can build a culture of life but legal restrictions on assault weapons are doomed to fail and spell the end of liberty.
Focusing on the courts abandons the responsibility pro-lifers bear for helping our fellow citizens embrace a full respect for human life.
Though Americans have deeply complicated—and often self-contradictory—views about the legality of abortion and often support some restrictions, there is no clear majority support for the kind of sweeping abortion laws the pro-life movement is currently prioritizing. Given that lack of support, there is a temptation—the mirror image of the logic of Roe itself—to depend on the courts, as in recent efforts to rescind the longstanding F.D.A. approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. This approach sidesteps the hard, slow work of convincing fellow citizens that laws against abortion are both morally necessary and capable of being justly implemented.
Pro-lifers should reject such judicial gamesmanship. The fundamental holding of Dobbs was that abortion was never properly a constitutional matter and should have remained within the normal legislative power of states. Court restrictions on abortion would be immediately appealed, and the main political arena for abortion debates would once again be the nomination of Supreme Court justices.
While overturning Roe was the correct and necessary interpretation of the Constitution, the Supreme Court majority that did so is the product of decades of political effort, much of it unscrupulous and opportunistic. It is consequently deeply resented. There is every reason to expect that a primarily judicial victory for abortion restrictions would result in swift reciprocal attempts to reshape the courts to restore and amplify Roe’s holding of a constitutional right to abortion.
But even more than the political backlash it would occasion, the debate over abortion can be “won” in the courts without advancing the moral case against it. And focusing on the courts abandons the responsibility pro-lifers bear for helping our fellow citizens embrace a full respect for human life. “Evangelium Vitae,” St. John Paul II’s encyclical on respect for human life, addresses this concern. The pope noted there are cases in democratic systems, “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law,” that a pro-life elected official might “support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality” (No. 73).
It is not possible in the United States today to fully overturn laws permitting abortion. This is true not only as a matter of counting votes and winning legislative elections, but even more because our society lacks the moral conviction that the unborn deserve protection in law. We have also struggled to demonstrate that we can implement those laws while justly protecting pregnant women. Rather than immediately seeking the most extensive judicial and legislative victories possible at whatever expense, pro-lifers need to work to show that opposition to abortion is part of a coherent moral vision and not mere political alignment with one side of the culture war. That is slower, harder work—because it is aimed at more lasting justice and peace.