With the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court, Right to Life advocates see the prospect of the overturn of Roe v. Wade looming on the horizon. Perhaps it would be best not to be too eager. The politics of the matter, plus the question of precedents, does not make for an easy process. Leave both the political and legal issues aside. Roe presents a stark decision point for any society, and especially for a secular, pluralistic one such as ours.
The decision point is how to treat matters of faith. To understand the dilemma, it is necessary to consider how the unborn are considered by the Right to Life movement, and most religious communities. That must then be held in contrast to the atheistic view. I subscribe to the principle that life begins at conception. This is not technically correct, as life is in reality a continuum. To say that life begins is to suggest that inanimate materials have somehow been endowed at some moment with those characteristics we recognize as life. None the less, the phrase is useful if it is taken to mean that the life of an individual begins at conception. This is inarguable as we can infer from genetics. The DNA that identifies an individual (human or otherwise) is established at the time of conception.
In the materialist view, this is all that happens. But there is more to consider. We are, we believe, endowed with a soul, something that is not of the material world. It has been argued (and there are diverse views on this even among the religious) that abortion might be acceptable at any time before the developing embryo/fetus becomes human. The soul is essential to humanity and when ensoulment occurs is thus a critical moment. Again, I subscribe to the idea that ensoulment occurs simultaneously with conception. This is the only time that is not an arbitrary choice. Any other point further along depends on an arbitrary choice with unclear delineation. If you say that a beating heart is necessary, you cannot pin down the moment it starts. Brain development and other physical characteristics take place gradually and the clear moment is not readily discernible. Though we cannot easily detect that moment either, conception takes place almost instantly and thus it is a certainty that this new individual has both soul and body. it follows that abortion at any stage takes the life of a soul-endowed individual.
But does it matter. I certainly believe that it does and it is a matter of great importance to that God that endows us all with soul. Absent God, it does not matter at all. Then any arbitrary moment can be regarded as a dividing line, or no point at all need be established. It is entirely up to the people to decide, and it can change on a whim. There is nothing to stand in the way of any decision taken. But the words of the Declaration of Independence should matter, both because of the clear meaning and the understanding of the Founding Fathers who certainly believed in a creator, even if they could not agree on how to worship. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote, “that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Truly, we cannot live up to those words if we have no respect for life, even at the earliest stages. Remove life, and liberty and happiness have no meaning.
Overturning Roe v Wade, will not be the panacea that some think it would be. It would only mean returning to status quo ante, wherein the matter is returned to the states. This will satisfy the federalists among us, allowing the matter to be resolved state by state. It will be an almost dead certainty that some states will retain legal abortion, perhaps legalizing even more extreme methods and circumstances. This will also mean that the socio-political divisions will likely become even sharper. In that future, Roe might be gone but chasm that exists between us will grow ever deeper.
Should Roe be upheld or retained? Consideration must be given to the dilemma judges face when such questions are brought before them. As has been rightly observed, the word abortion appears nowhere in the constitution. Thus there is no clear statement as to how it should be treated. In that circumstance, a judge must resort to other sources, or try to distill some reasonable conclusion from thin air. it is worth noting that there was a decided interest in considering Roe or a like case at the time. Given that there was nothing to go by, it is reasonable to think the decision was made before the case even came to court. Should Roe be overturned, there will inevitably follow a further effort to solve the matter “for once and for all”, meaning that it will not be put to rest, and attempts to litigate it will continue into the indefinite future. Without Roe, the attempt would be to effectively make the Declaration into law, something that could have profound, unforeseeable consequences.
The real solution is, as it has been all along, to convince the people of the rightness of the Right to Life cause. And too, to emphasize Lincoln’s admonition that a house divided cannot stand. Even if, as with the Founders, we cannot agree on the manner of worship, we must ultimately be of one mind on this issue. For me, I will continue to believe that all human life is precious, that it begins, both in soul and body, at conception. All this I have derived from observable facts and right reason and I am firmly committed to the words of the Nicene Creed. “I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and everything visible and invisible…”