Editor’s Note: The September issue of Commonweal featured a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” The magazine has been publishing a series of articles and essays that continue the conversation begun in the symposium. This is the third in that series.
The American pro-life movement was born in the wake of Roe v. Wade. And it may well die in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson—die and yet possibly be reborn, break and be reforged. The fight against abortion is still dangerously fragile, even in the joy that followed the Dobbs decision this past June. The wish to protect vulnerable life may, if all goes poorly, fade into a glum and hopeless acceptance of political compromise, akin to Europe’s, in which the social will to ban abortion and state-licensed euthanasia simply does not exist.
And yet, at its most promising, a post-Dobbs pro-life movement offers an opportunity to bridge America’s horrendous current political divisions, building alliances that once seemed impossible. A new care for the weakest among us offers an opening for rethinking old arguments that had no purchase under the legal regime of Roe. And a revived will to welcome new life in the womb, and cherish life after birth, offers an occasion to develop a moral vocabulary that does not try to squeeze every ethical issue into the narrow mold of natural rights.
To understand the changes in America after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision this summer, we have to remember exactly what Roe v. Wade did in 1973 (together with its essential affirmation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992). The justices declared abortion to be a constitutional right, a fundamental and inalienable moral element in human existence, of a weight equal to such other rights as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
However much abortion would seem a political issue over the next nearly fifty years, Roe actually lifted the reality of abortion out of the political realm. Back in the late 1990s, I spent a day with a pro-life Supreme Court justice who had agreed to discuss the topic with a small group of public intellectuals. And he was, all in all, quite phlegmatic about the pro-life cause, which in those days seemed close to its nadir. You lose a vote, he suggested, and you steel yourself to come back the next time to argue it all over again. That’s the nature of such things in the public square. What he didn’t seem to grasp is that he was speaking of a public square with only nine people in it. For the rest of America, the question of abortion was in the political realm only at several removes: electing senators and a president who would put pro-life justices on the court, amidst all the other policy issues that our two-party system crams into a single mark on a ballot.
Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that the pro-life cause would eventually become identified primarily with a single party. In the first few years after Roe, there were prominent Democrats with national ambitions, from Jesse Jackson to Dick Gephardt, who loudly proclaimed their opposition to abortion. In the coming decades, however, the ledge for pro-life Democrats would narrow considerably. In 2004, Dennis Kucinich, the once–boy mayor of Cleveland, renounced his longtime liberal pro-life position, the only thing that had distinguished him from any other middle-of-the-pack Democratic candidate, in order to raise money for a presidential run. He was hardly alone. In 2000, I had a series of discussions with a young Democratic congressman from the Midwest who thought that perhaps opposition to cloning was a path to national prominence. But when I suggested that he would be hard pressed to make a simple soundbite-style argument against cloning that didn’t implicate abortion, he abandoned the issue, telling me that abortion was the untouchable rail for Democrats seeking national office. In 2010, Bart Stupak, the congressman from Michigan’s first district, led a small pro-life Democratic bloc in the House of Representatives that was at least sufficiently large that the Democratic leadership had to treat with him to pass Obamacare. By 2021, Henry Cuellar, from Texas’s twenty-eighth district, was the only self-declared pro-life Democrat remaining in the House.