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Revisiting Roe


For the longest time she was known only as Jane Roe, a legal pseudonym for a plaintiff whose identity was hidden because of the nature of her case — a young pregnant woman in Texas seeking to overturn the state’s ban on abortion. Given the long years that elapse in appellate litigation, Plaintiff Roe had her baby, and later had a change of heart. But the Supreme Court proceeded to hear the case and to rule that state laws against abortion were an unconstitutional infringement on a woman’s right to privacy. Later, Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Roe, emerged from the shadows, now a born-again Christian renouncing the Supreme Court decision that bears her fictitious name, Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973) Last year the Supreme Court denied her petition to reopen the case. But the underlying issues of Roe v. Wade are far from settled. Justice Blackmun’s opinion, a discursive expedition through history, philosophy, sociology, medicine and religion, law and public policy, may well be one of the most frequently-read and contentious rulings ever issued by the Supreme Court.

January 22 is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and each year thousands people who believe that abortion should be illegal come to Washington for the March for Life. The purpose of this large public demonstration is to demand that Congress and the Supreme Court reverse Roe and enact laws that will protect human life from conception. Because, like many major religions, the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a grave moral evil, many Catholic organizations will participate in the March for Life. To find out more information about the march and related events see Archdiocese of Washington Rally for Life

To learn more about Catholic doctrine, read Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) which summarizes the Catholic Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life.

While many Americans from many religious backgrounds, not only Catholics, agree that abortion is morally wrong, there is far less agreement on whether the law should incorporate this moral and religious belief. This is not a new problem in spite of the tendency of modern Americans to think that all social issues start with our own experience. The Blackmun opinion in Roe v. Wade traces the ancient roots of our contemporary abortion controversies, and outlines the philosophical, medical and scientific debates about when human life begins. Pro-life proponents argue that Blackmun’s parsing of trimesters is just wrong, that human life begins at conception and public policy should always protect human life. Pro-choice advocates defend the woman’s right to privacy in matters affecting her own body, and also argue that recriminalizing abortion will be harmful to women, particularly poor women, who will revert to dangerous practices to end their pregnancies.

A review of all of the legislation, litigation and legal opinions issued since Roe illustrates the hash that emerges when lawyers and politicians try to make rules for moral and ethical conduct. Some human conditions may be simply too important for legislatures or judicial chambers to be the ultimate arbiters of conduct. Law is generally a poor substitute for sound moral reasoning or effective and comprehensive social services for people who need support to make the right decision.

Advocates on behalf of the dignity and sacredness of human life might be more effective if they took care to avoid harsh rhetoric and broad condemnations. Calling people names because they have different opinions about the best tactical approach is unlikely to garner support for any cause. To say that the a more effective solution to the social and moral problem of abortion lies in better education and social service, not legislation and governmental fiat, does not deny the moral wrong but acknowledges the human condition in all of its complexity and need.

Advocates on behalf of women’s rights might also be more effective if they stopped glossing over the real moral problem at the heart of the abortion decision. To equate an abortion to some other elective surgery is irresponsible. To say that women should have better health care to deliver healthy babies, better economic opportunities to care for their children properly, or to have more effective adoption solutions does not betray women’s rights.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago spoke on the need to adopt a “Consistent Ethic of Life” also known as the “Seamless Garment” philosophy. Consistent with Pope John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life,” this approach reminds Catholics that the defense of human life encompasses all life, and specifically includes our approaches to abortion, capital punishment, war, nuclear arms, discrimination, exploitation, care for the poor, and related social justice issues affecting the quality of human life and human dignity.

Death marches across our screens (TV, computer, now telephones and PDAs) relentlessly. When it’s not the news (war, executions, violence just up the street) it’s “entertainment.” Let’s use our reflections about the right to life on January 22 to renew our collective will to work for peace and justice for all human beings on all of the other days.

See Archdiocese of Washington Pregnancy Care Centers and Catholic Community Services (Catholic Charities)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: