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: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.