Today makes the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. It was a decision that profoundly changed America, that changed the values that guide us as a nation. It short, it was nothing less than a cultural revolution. In moral terms it was probably the most catastrophic decision since at least the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the Court held that African-Americans could not be citizens and had not rights which white men were bound to respect.
Roe v. Wade had far reaching social and cultural consequences. The argument for legalized abortion is usually based on the idea of a “woman’s right to choose.” Abortion, it is argued, involves a woman’s control over her own body, and that it should be a private decision between her and her physician. But what about the fetus itself? Is that just a part of the woman’s body, like her tonsils or her appendix? Simple high school biology would tell us otherwise. The reason abortion had been made illegal from conception was the realization that the fertilized egg has its own genetic makeup quite distinct from the mother’s. The embryo undergoes a continuous process of development, and as it does so it acquires its own heartbeat and the ability to move on its own. It is a distinct, living, human being. How, then, can we justify taking its life? Abortion amounts to infanticide in utero.
But this, in turn, raises a deeper moral question. What makes killing wrong in the first place? The Sixth Commandment reads, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17; NKJV), and the Judeo-Christian tradition has always held that human life is sacred. Human beings are created in the image of God, and thus killing a human being is not the same as killing a deer or a bear. Roe v. Wade represents a decisive break with Judeo-Christian morality.
But what then? What makes anything right or wrong? Feminists argue that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion. But does she really? Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say anything at all about abortion? The Court tried to argue that it was implied in a generalized right to privacy which, in turn, was supposedly implied in several other provisions of the Constitution. But this was quite a stretch. The tendency in modern times has been for the Court to treat the Constitution as a “living document” to be construed in different ways as the needs of society change. But the problem with this approach is that it amounts to judicial tyranny – the Supreme Court can create law at will. But the Constitution represents a social contract among the people – “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ,” and only the people have the right to change it. It is not for the Supreme Court to read into the document what it will.
But suppose that the Constitution actually did stipulate a right to have an abortion (as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently suggested New State should put in its Constitution). Would that make it right? The U.S. Constitution, as it was originally written, tacitly recognized the existence of slavery, and stipulated that runaway slaves had to be returned to their masters. But did that make it right? What about the Nazi Holocaust, which was also official government policy?
What the Feminist argument amounts to is a denial of the existence of any higher, universal moral law. It assumes that moral norms are man-made, and that we are not accountable to any Supreme Being. But human societies have repeatedly shown themselves to all kinds of cruelty and injustice. Does might really make right?
What we have today in America is a culture that is increasingly secular and amoral. We think of ourselves as autonomous individuals acting in our own self-interest, without any respect to any higher moral principles. This, in turn, has led to an increasingly lawless society. Life is a matter of what we can get away with.
This lack of universal ideals has also led to identity politics. Instead of seeing ourselves as sharing a common humanity, and as united as members of a single country, committed to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” we see ourselves instead as part of this or that oppressed minority group, engaged in a perpetual struggle against some other group or groups. It was only a matter of time when white, working class people would begin to see themselves as an oppressed group; hence we have the ruse of white nationalism and Donald Trump.
But democracy cannot long endure under such circumstances. Politicians need to be able to find common ground and reach a compromise, which is increasingly difficult when society is deeply divided over core values. And people need an incentive to obey the law voluntarily – they need to be motivated by a higher moral law – that one needs to obey the law even when the police are not looking. When that is lacking, when people are guided solely by individual self-interest, only a dictator can maintain order in society.
America is a very different country today than it was 46 years ago. Roe v. Wade was a decisive break with cultural traditions held by Western Civilization for thousands of years. It remains to be seen what the future will hold.