Roe v. Wade turns 30 this week. Marking the end rather than the beginning of so many lives, it is a most unusual and unhappy birthday.
The numbers are staggering; indeed, they are almost too big to grasp. Since 1973, perhaps as many as 42 million abortions have been performed in the United States. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of Poland. It was Stalin who coldly observed that “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million a statistic.” And in Roe’s tally, we see that he was right: When thrown together in a lifeless heap of nameless, voiceless numbers, human life becomes less human; killing takes on the character of accounting; and the carnage — because of its very scope — gradually becomes less repulsive, less tragic.
And so the numbers grow, at once validating our inertia and numbing us to an unspeakable loss. Roe’s earliest victims would be entering their thirties today, starting families, building careers, enjoying the prime of life. The bulk of Roe’s children would be in their twenties. They would live in a country not of 284 million, but of more than 326 million — perhaps considerably more, given the fact that many of them would have children of their own. Some 13 million of them would be black, 26 million of them white.
They would have filled America’s insatiable hunger for workers and fueled America’s boundless productivity and creativity. They would have been doctors and teachers and bus drivers and inventors and rabbis and pastors and maids and soldiers and artists and janitors — and, yes, drug dealers, crooks, deadbeats, prostitutes, lowlifes, and addicts. Like anyone born into freedom, they would have faced daily choices that determine their destinies and shape their lives. Life wouldn’t have been easy for many of them. It wouldn’t have been perfect for any of them. In fact, it would have been downright painful and tragic for some of them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of life wouldn’t have been worth living. Because they would have been born in America, they wouldn’t have been cursed by their origins, by their handicaps, by the fact that a mother didn’t want them or a father wasn’t around or a would-be grandparent was ashamed.
Because their lives were incomplete, those of us who escaped Roe’s reach are also incomplete. We have lost something immeasurable — the dreams and hopes of an unseen, unborn generation.
There is no silver lining to the storm of destruction unleashed by Roe. But perhaps there is light on the still-distant horizon: Polling indicates that Americans are increasingly squeamish about what their indifference has wrought. A 1995 Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans called themselves pro-choice; only 33 percent said they were pro-life. Today, the numbers are even. And a recent poll found that nearly 70 percent of American adults favor “restoring legal protection for unborn children.” There may not yet be a pro-life majority, but there’s definitely no longer a pro-choice majority.
Moreover, these are more than just opinions; America’s shifting mood is slowly translating into substantive changes. For example, in 84 percent of U.S. counties there are no abortion providers at all. States are enacting commonsense laws to protect mothers and fathers — and their unborn children — from rash decisions and agenda-minded clinicians. In fact, almost half the states have mandatory waiting periods in force. Forty states allow mothers to sue doctors or anyone whose negligence has contributed to the death of a fetus.
For his part, President George W. Bush is trying to supplant Roe’s culture of waste with what he calls “a new culture of life.” Just days after his inauguration, he reinstated the ban on federal assistance to international abortion providers, which his predecessor had removed upon taking office eight years earlier. In spring 2001, Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services notified states that Medicaid would no longer cover the abortion pill RU486. By July of 2001, HHS chief Tommy Thompson drafted a policy allowing states to provide medical coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program to “unborn children.” Also in the summer of 2001, the president blocked federal money from being used to grow human embryos and harvest their stem cells.
Then, last summer, the White House announced plans to distribute nearly $1 million to promote “embryo adoption.” The money was tacked onto an HHS appropriation bill, and the purpose was simply to raise public awareness about the existence of tens of thousands of frozen embryos originally created for in-vitro fertilization but since left in limbo. But the program promises to have a much-broader and more-lasting impact than TV ads and public-service announcements would. By using the word adoption instead of donation or contribution, proponents are making an emphatic statement about when life begins. And as the Associated Press reported after the White House announcement, they are “making some people nervous.” Those who refuse to make a distinction between human embryos and lab rats worry that the program will fence off vast fields of embryonic life from which they hope to harvest tissue and cells. Abortion advocates worry about the long-term viability of Roe itself. As Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (now renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America), warned, “It’s part of this larger trend we see of attempting to endow the embryo with personhood status.”
Last summer also marked Bush’s signing of HR 2175, which guarantees infants who have already been born full legal rights under federal law, regardless of their stage of development or whether their births occurred during an abortion. Like all legislation, the bill begins with a brief explanation of its purpose. And in this case, the purpose is as simple as it is stunning: “To protect infants who are born alive.” With those seven little words, the bill says more about 21st-century America than an entire almanac. Still, I suppose any step away from infanticide is a step in the right direction.
But even this good news comes with an asterisk. There was a time — and it wasn’t long ago — when newborn babies didn’t need a federal law to protect them from doctors. If nothing else, HR 2175 is an indication that those days are gone. Consider the perverse irony here: If the abortionist performs the procedure successfully, the child will be born dead and the abortionist will have fulfilled his responsibilities to the patient and the state. However, if he is unsuccessful and the infant is born alive, the abortionist can only fulfill his responsibilities to the patient and the state by making sure the child survives.
How did we descend into such moral chaos? The answer is simple: one step at a time. Contrary to abortion supporters, Roe v. Wade did not legalize abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. And it certainly didn’t legalize infanticide. In fact, Justice Blackmun’s fateful decision argues that the state’s compelling interest should be with the health of the mother “until the end of the first trimester.” According to Blackmun, that interest then begins to shift as the woman approaches term. “With respect to the state’s important and legitimate interest in potential life,” he concludes, “the compelling point is at viability…because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.” In Blackmun’s view, “If the state is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
His use of the word “mother” in the very decision that birthed America’s abortion industry is not just ironic — it’s a tacit admission that abortion opponents have it right: It is a child. After all, there can be no mother without a child. And to borrow a phrase from Blackmun, few of us are capable of meaningful life without the support, care, and nurturing of someone else — whether it’s a mother, father, spouse, doctor, pastor, or all of the above.
But that’s of little comfort, especially to Roe’s victims. As many predicted, the Roe decision gave abortion supporters the toehold they needed. Steadily, the second and third trimesters became as sacrosanct as the first, even as the frontiers of viability were pushed further back by scientific advancements. Abortion became the most-common surgical procedure in America. And Roe’s legal loopholes came to rationalize virtually anything, from after-the-fact birth control to partial-birth abortion to post-birth infanticide. Each step relied on the previous step for justification, and with each step America slipped further down a slippery slope.
We began this descent by discarding a fundamental truth: Life has a definitive beginning and end. Neither a doctor nor a judge nor a mother can change that. Without question, there is a difference between the undeveloped, frozen embryos who await adoption and the newborns who are protected under HR 2175, just as there are differences between an 80-year-old grandfather, a 17-year-old student, and a 2-year-old toddler. Humans continually develop and change. That, by definition, is part of life. The grandfather was once a student. The student was once a toddler. The toddler was once a newborn. The newborn was once unborn. The unborn was once an embryo.
It took us three decades to unlearn this. Let us hope it doesn’t take another three decades to relearn it.
— Alan W. Dowd is assistant vice president of the Hudson Institute.