Michael Paulsen on “The Unbearable Wrongness of Roe”

by Ed Whelan

In a bracing Public Discourse essay, law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen offers a “brief tour of Roe’s unbearable wrongness [that] begins with Roe’s radicalism—its extreme holding creating a plenary right to obtain or commit abortion—proceeds with Roe’s legal untenability, and concludes with Roe’s immorality and the moral problem of our seeming passivity and quiescence in response to the greatest legal and moral wrongs of our age.” Here is a lengthy excerpt from his third section, which poses more of a challenge to those of us who recognize abortion as a grave evil than to those who genuinely don’t:

Here is the problem, undressed: If human embryonic life is morally worthy of protection, we have permitted sixty million murders under our watch. Faced with this prospect, many of us—maybe even most—flee from the facts. We deny that the living human embryo is “truly” or “fully” human life, adopt a view that whether the embryo or fetus is human “depends,” or can be judged in degrees, on a sliding scale over the course of pregnancy; or we proclaim uncertainty about the facts of human biology; or we proclaim moral agnosticism about the propriety of “imposing our views on others”; or we throw up our hands and give up because moral opposition to an entrenched, pervasive social practice is not worth the effort, discomfort, and social costs. The one position not on the table—the one possibility too hard to look at—is that abortion is a grave moral wrong on a par with the greatest human moral atrocities of all time and that we passively, almost willingly, accept it as such.

All of this should tell us a few more sobering things. It should tell us that, much as we would like to believe that human beings have become more morally conscious, more sensitive to injustice and intolerant of clear evil, it remains the case that we often either fail to recognize it in our midst, or refuse to respond to it decisively, out of self-interest or cowardice. It should tell us that, much as we would like to think that we surely would have stood bravely against slavery, even if embedded in a nineteenth-century society that tolerated and accepted it as a legal right, we might have acquiesced or been tepid in our condemnation. It should tell us that, much as we would like to think we would never have put up with what transpired in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the 1940s, the evidence of our lives in twenty-first century America is that we might have put up with quite a lot.

And it should tell us finally, that, as much as we may claim to admire our governmental and constitutional system, the decisions of the Supreme Court in the abortion cases expose the Court—at least on this matter of life, death, and law—as a lawless, rogue institution capable of the most monstrous of injustices in the name of law. The Court has, with its abortion decisions, surely forfeited its legal and moral legitimacy as an institution. It has forfeited its claimed authority to speak for the Constitution. It has forfeited its entitlement to have its decisions respected, and followed, by the other branches of government, by the states, and by the people. Yet the docility of the American people with respect to Roe and abortion rivals the pliancy of the most cowardly, servile peoples toward ruinous, brutal, anti-democratic regimes throughout world history.