‘I think it’s without question that pregnancy to a woman can completely disrupt her life.”
On December 13, 1971, attorney Sarah Weddington was arguing the case of Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court. In the course of her argument she stated that pregnancy is a burden women ought to have the legal choice to be freed from. That was more than 41 years ago now. Today, the most recent numbers available show that in New York City two in five pregnancies end in abortion; the likelihood of abortion is 60 percent if the child in the womb happens to be black. Statewide, the numbers are lower, but still shockingly high. In the midst of this abysmal culture of death, Weddington joined the Empire State’s governor last week in Albany as he insisted that access to abortion be expanded there.
Which leads to some questions: Do we actually prefer abortion now? Is it out with safe, legal, and rare, and in with quick, legal at any stage of the pregnancy, and maybe preferred? Maybe even expected?
That sounds quite miserable. But hiding behind Governor Cuomo’s “her body, her choice” mantra, and the “war on women” rhetoric heard ad nauseam nationally, lie these brutal realities, and we simply have to confront them. If we don’t actively prefer abortion, our culture and too many of our institutions have come to accept it as a necessary problem-solver. But what’s lost when we settle here, in a false sense of what’s necessary for women’s freedom, is a sense of life and its inherent dignity, as well as potentially endless possibilities for the child, for the mother, for the father, for a family desperately wanting a child, for friends, for the culture.
During her Roe v. Wade oral arguments, Weddington opened with the example abortion advocates always use. It’s a smart one, from their point of view. “Texas, for example, it appears to us, would not allow any relief at all, even in situations where the mother would suffer perhaps serious physical or mental harm. There is certainly a great question about it.”
Americans have deep empathy for a woman who finds herself in a difficult situation, and they want to know that she can be safe. And so the hard cases get front-page attention. Stories like the recent one from El Salvador, where a woman suffering from lupus and carrying a baby whose brain and skull were incomplete sought an abortion, which was denied. She wound up instead having an emergency C-section; the child died after a few hours. Or the story of Savita Halappanavar, the Indian woman who died last fall in Ireland. For months, it was claimed that Savita died because she could not obtain an abortion in Ireland. In truth, the investigation made clear, she died of an infection, and not because an abortion was not performed on her.
The results of the investigation did not receive as much press as her death did, of course. All too often we form opinions without knowing the facts of the matter. And now Ireland is considering making abortion legal out of fear that women who are denied it will commit suicide. How about getting the mom health care instead of doing violence to her and her child?
When arguing these points, we must make clear that the pro-life position does not mean that a woman loses her own right to life. It is the abortion regime that insists that the mother determines whether there is one patient or two in the case of a pregnancy. But there are two: the vulnerable unborn baby and also, very much, the mother, who in hard cases can be treated for a serious illness without the intention of killing her innocent baby, but in the knowledge that the treatment might put the baby’s life at risk. There have been and will be heroic women who won’t take that risk, like St. Gianna Molla; she inspires us, but does not bind us.
In 1971, Weddington argued: “A pregnancy to a woman is perhaps one of the most determinative aspects of her life. It disrupts her body. It disrupts her education. It disrupts her employment. And it often disrupts her entire family life.” What was lost in Weddington’s account is that pregnancy, of course, adds another person to the equation. Pregnancy brings with it another person, who has inherent rights.
In arguing for what would become a right to legal abortion in all 50 states, Weddington went on to say: “If the pregnancy would result in the birth of a deformed or defective child, she has no relief. Regardless of the circumstances of conception, whether it was because of rape, incest, whether she is extremely immature, she has no relief.”
Weddington was forgetting that marriage and babies can actually help mature us. Raising children can entail great sacrificial experiences that build character and make heroes of everyday women and men. There is sacrifice but there is also joy. What is the purpose of our lives anyway? It’s more than advancing in a job or controlling the timing of a birth. With all our medical progress, nothing is fool-proof. In facing our challenges, we can learn to live and love more fully.
“Whether she’s unmarried; whether she’s pursuing an education; whether she’s pursuing a career; whether she has family problems; all of the problems of personal and family life, for a woman, are bound up in the problem of abortion,” Weddington said.
The problem of abortion then, in her mind, was only that it was not readily available all over the country. Abortion was presented as an answer to challenges. And here we are 41 years later. Where lives are adapted to its availability, and millions of lives are not with us on account of it.
Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life views Weddington’s posture as an unintentional betrayal of women. “As her arguments for abortion before the Supreme Court made clear, Weddington saw the discrimination and other injustices faced by pregnant women,” Foster says. “But she did not demand that these injustices be remedied. Instead, she demanded for women the ‘right’ to submit to these injustices by destroying their pregnancies.” Weddington, and the large portion of the feminist movement that has long embraced legal abortion, “discounted the strength of women to overcome obstacles, and the resolution of society to support mothers,” Foster argues.
Supporting Andrew Cuomo’s “Women’s Equality Act,” which, among other things, would allow non-doctors to perform abortions in the state, Weddington said that “New York was the state we looked to. Around the country, women always said, ‘If you can just make it to New York,’” Weddington added. “That was always the beacon of hope, the beacon of where your rights would be respected. This is . . . women looking again to New York for leadership.”
Real leadership would march us out of this morass. Women deserve better than believing they have a right to a dead child. Women and men need support in embracing life in all its challenges and fruitful options.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.