The toxic waste of Roe v. Wade

George Weigel

Great Britain’s parliamentary democracy has no constitutional text, but rather a “constitution” composed of centuries of legal traditions and precedents. So when British courts make grave mistakes, those mistakes can be fixed, more or less readily, by Parliament. The American situation is quite different. Given a written constitution and the principle of judicial review, grave mistakes by the Supreme Court are exceptionally toxic and hard to remedy, as three wrongly-decided cases illustrate.

In 1857, the Court declared in Dred Scott v. Sanford that the Constitution recognized no rights inherent in black people the white majority was bound to acknowledge – and thereby accelerated the process of national dissolution leading to the Civil War, in which over 700,000 Americans killed each other. Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of racially segregated public facilities in 1896, kept Jim Crow alive, delayed the full legal implementation of the 13th and 14th amendments, and poisoned the Democratic Party for generations by giving inordinate weight within party counsels to segregationists, who cowed even Franklin D. Roosevelt. It took a half century of civil rights struggle and the 1964 Civil Rights Act to begin repairing the damage Plessy had done. 

Then there was Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton: the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that invented a constitutional right to abortion throughout a pregnancy. Denounced by Justice Byron White in his dissent as “an exercise in raw judicial power,” Roe’s effects on American political culture have been as toxic as Dred Scott and Plessy

Defending Roe’s abortion license has become a prime imperative for the national Democratic Party. And because of that, far too many Catholic politicians, including the Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 and 2020, have put a canine fealty to a shabby judicial diktat above the truth of science (the product of human conception is a unique human being) and the moral truth we can know by reason (in a just society, innocent human life is protected in law). Roe has also jeopardized religious freedom and the rights of conscience, corrupted the medical professions, and eroded the authority of the states to regulate medical practice. 

In an attempt to buttress Roe, a three-judge plurality in 1992’s Casey v. Planned Parenthoodcheapened the “liberty” to which the Founders pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor,” reducing it to a sheer personal willfulness that turns “I Did It My Way” into the unofficial national anthem. And thanks to Roe, Supreme Court nomination hearings have become exercises in character assassination with no holds barred. 

While political scientists may wonder why the defense of Roe’s abortion license has become so fevered, comparative religious studies may provide an answer: for those who worship the totem of the imperial autonomous Self (the false god of “Me, Myself, and I”), the abortion license has become sacramental – an outward sign of the inner reality of women’s autonomy; an outward sign, for men, of their acquiescence to forms of feminism that promote freedom-as-autonomy.  

Unquestioning faith in that which is unworthy of faith darkens the mind, so that otherwise intelligent people are blinded to the reality of things. This was true of primitive religions, and sadly enough, similar phenomena are at work today. For other than a debilitating myopia caused by the credulous belief that abortion-on-demand is a “civil right,” why would so many black political leaders support a practice that, thanks to Planned Parenthood’s inner-city “reproductive health” clinics, has caused the mass slaughter of unborn black children, thereby making African Americans the second-largest minority group in the United States?

Today’s Supreme Court agitations involve many issues, including the oversized role of the judiciary in our constitutional order. Those issues deserve a serious, thoughtful, public airing. For many of those bending every effort to defeat Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Court, however, the meta-issue will be the defense of an abortion license they not only support, but revere. And that ultramundane reverence explains why their efforts will be so vicious. False gods often underwrite human cruelty.  

A Supreme Court that hollows out or even reverses Roe v. Wade will not settle the American abortion debate; it will return the issue to the states, where there will be mixed results for the cause of life. But a post-Roe America will have expelled a rotting bone from the national throat. And that America will then have the opportunity to demonstrate, state by state, whether we are a people capable of morally serious democratic deliberation.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.