35 years after Roe

35 years after Roe

It has been 35 years to the day since the Supreme Court of the United States declared that in a complicated ethical matter on which religious authorities disagreed, a citizen of the United States has the right to follow her own conscience and act in what she believes to be her own best interest.

That is not how the court stated the issue, but it is exactly the effect of its 7-2 ruling in Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973.

The other day on this page a conservative columnist criticized the court for taking “the question of endowment of life by ‘our Creator’ and placing it in the hands of individuals.” Cal Thomas is certainly entitled to his opinion and to interpreting when his Creator deigns that life has begun.

But how does anyone who describes himself as a political conservative — columnist or not —arrive at the position that his religious beliefs should be the law of the land? Suggesting that one religion or a coalition of religions should determine how everyone in the United States behaves is not conservative, it is radical.

There are tens of millions of Americans of good conscience whose religion does not teach that life begins at the moment of conception. Their religion does not hold and they do not believe that every fertilized egg has rights that supersede the right of a pregnant woman to decide whether she wants to carry a child to term. And that’s not to mention people of fine moral standing who are nonreligious or who disagree with their own religion on some points.

Things have changed

An entire generation — going on two generations — has grown up not knowing what it was like in the United States before Roe v. Wade. They do not know about the hundreds of women who were denied clinical abortions in the United States in the early 1960s after a drug prescribed for morning sickness was found to cause severe birth defects. Certainly no woman should have been forced to have an abortion based on her use of Thalidomide, but neither should any woman have been denied one. Before Roe v. Wade any state could tell any pregnant girl or woman that she would have her baby, regardless of how that baby was conceived — even if through rape or incest — and regardless of what toll the pregnancy might take on her mental or physical health. An entire generation has graduated from journalism schools without ever having to write a story about a college girl who bled to death after having a back alley abortion. (A side note, 1960s abortion providers in Northeastern Ohio were often small-time mobsters.)

Certainly there are lively arguments to be had over the legal scholarship of the seven justices who agreed in Roe v. Wade that a Texas law that prohibited abortions was overly broad. But likewise, there is reason to question the legal grounding of today’s “strict constructionists” who argue that there is no constitutional right to privacy, or certainly not one that extends to a woman’s right to choose an abortion. They overlook that there was no reason for the Constitution to address abortion, because the law in the late 18th century didn’t prohibit abortion. The movement toward making abortion illegal didn’t pick up steam until the mid-19th century, and even then much of the opposition was based not on moral arguments but on the danger abortion represented for women at a time when surgical procedures were not as sterilized as they are today.

Beware of those who pine for the good old days when abortion was illegal. They are often the same people who would convert from church doctrine to civil law their religious beliefs on stem cell research, gay marriage, gay adoption, inoculations against cervical cancer, abstinence for teenagers, even birth control for adults.

If ever there was a time when Americans should beware of mixing religion and politics, this is that time.

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