In the 50th year since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision allowing abortion on demand, that same court has judged that case wrongly decided and kicked America’s most neuralgic issue back to its elected representatives.
Pro-lifers have responded with joy that a goal so long desired has been attained. But whether that court decision calms America’s fierce divisions or worsens them will only become clear with time.
Perhaps for the next 50 years abortion supporters will gather in steamy Washington in June as pro-lifers have done in frigid January to bear witness to their opposition. Perhaps abortion supporters will set up volunteer centers to help thousands of women obtain abortions the way that pro-lifers set up hundreds of clinics like the Women’s Care Centers to help thousands of pregnant women in need. Perhaps.
Since the states that want abortion will most likely keep abortion, and the states that don’t, won’t, we may simply be facing another long standoff, with every political position above that of dogcatcher now caught up in the divide, and various majorities reversing each other when they are swept into office.
The persistent challenge that has faced us for half a century and will likely face us for half a century more is not how to change elected officials, but how to change hearts and minds. I’m not sure we’ve done all that good a job at the latter.
A woman at a pro-abortion rally in Washington who was nine months pregnant and beginning labor had written on her pregnant belly “Not yet a human,” but most people instinctively disagree. From the time of the first ultrasound, we talk about “the baby.” It only becomes a “fetus” or a “blob of cells” when it is viewed as a threat by the woman carrying that new life.
Pollsters tell us that people are by and large uncomfortable with abortion, and that they are also uncomfortable with it going away completely. People want options. They also think of worst-case scenarios. Some reasons for this ambiguity may be labeled selfish, but there is also a genuine concern for the woman making the decision, especially if she lacks a supportive spouse or family or is simply overwhelmed.
This concern for the mother-to-be may be a starting point for a new coalition. Most pro-lifers and abortion supporters agree that she should be helped. They empathize with her at this moment of need. They resent the irresponsible fathers. They ache over the maternal and infant mortality rates that are the shame of our nation.
If we want to change hearts and minds, we might start by working together, if possible, to support that woman. This can be done on the micro level, with pregnancy clinics and churches offering comfort and resources and mentoring, supporting both expectant mothers and fathers.
It can also be done at the macro level. In a June 25 Vatican editorial, Andrea Tornielli, editorial director at the Dicastery for Communication, challenged the United States to find ways to lower the maternal death rate, assist poor women, and provide or expand family leave.
Both mother and infant mortality rates should be the basic litmus test for how good a job we are doing. That is common ground where the church, pro-lifers and abortion supporters should all be able to rally.
Pitched battles in our state legislatures may be unavoidable. But perhaps this moment can give birth to a new movement advocating for both mother and child. As Tornielli wrote, the court ruling “could provide an opportunity to reflect on life, the protection of the defenseless and the discarded, women’s rights and the protection of motherhood.”
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.