If the extreme reaction of both pro-choice and anti-abortion activists to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision was predictable, it has nevertheless been disheartening. Democrats in Congress have rushed to pass an abortion-access bill even more libertarian than Roe and Casey. In “blue” states like Connecticut, where I live, the Democrats running for reelection to the U. S. Senate and the governorship are touting their unqualified devotion to “women’s bodily autonomy” and “reproductive health care.” In “red” states, meanwhile, anti-abortion politicians have passed, or will soon pass, laws outlawing abortion from conception, with no exceptions for rape or incest. And some anti-abortion activists talk hopefully of a “fetal personhood” amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Both sides carefully avoid any suggestion that compromise is either possible or necessary on this most difficult and philosophically complicated issue.
With Roe (1973), the Supreme Court, seeking to protect doctors, preempted the debate over abortion that was then taking place in state legislatures across the country. Commonweal opposed the decision. Over the years the magazine has called for laws limiting access to abortion to the first few months of pregnancy, judging that an absolute ban on the procedure would be imprudent and unenforceable. Law has an important pedagogical function and should reflect the value the community places on fetal life, but because of the unique burdens of pregnancy, the battle against abortion can only be won in the moral and cultural arena. Laws that a majority of Americans disagree with will be resisted and circumvented. As the journalist David Frum and the historian Michael Kazin have both argued, completely outlawing abortion will create a situation similar to what occurred during Prohibition. Americans will disregard the law, and in the face of that disregard, restrictions will be enforced only half-heartedly. As a consequence, questions about the moral value of fetal life will be marginalized while the rule of law itself will be undermined.
On most political issues, I am generally of the mind that Republicans are more ruthless or cynical than Democrats. But pro-choice activists sometimes challenge that assumption. Take the group Catholics for Choice, which Commonweal has criticized in the past. “American Catholics opposed to current abortion practice have long felt unfairly undermined by the efforts of Catholics for a Free Choice,” the editors complained twenty-five years ago (“There goes everybody,” March 14, 1997). Catholics, the editors wrote, need not accept that organization’s “hardline pro-choice group as a fitting ally.”