After Roe vs. Wade

If indeed it is the case that Supreme Court officially reverses its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that created a constitutional right to abortion, as the recent leak of its draft opinion would suggest, it would be a dramatic and historic moment for our nation.  Rarely does the Court reverse its decisions.  Rarely are its decisions so wrapped up in this many layers of cultural and emotional conflict.  Even if the pathway to the reversal of Roe has been steadily coming into focus for awhile now in our nation, nonetheless this is a bombshell that will realign major pieces of the American public square. 

On one level, the coming decision (assuming it holds) is a major victory for the pro-life movement and for human rights in general.  For decades we have prayed, fasted, marched, lobbied, voted, and dreamed of the reversal of Roe.  We have rightly argued that Roe was an egregious example of judicial activism, of convoluted reasoning, and a gross violation of the correct understanding of the human person on every possible level.  Its reversal would be a vindication of so much of what we have fought for.  

That said, the reversal of Roe is going to represent the end of the pro-life movement as we have known it, and its “replacement” as a movement is going to be far messier, more complicated, and will take quite some time to sort out.   Since 1973, the various well-springs of pro-life sentiment in our country have all been able to target one, common, foe: Roe and the constitutional “right” to abortion.  With that common foe now gone the risk of the fragmentation of the pro-life cause becomes more significant. Reversing Roe does not settle the abortion question in this country.  Now the issue moves, as it should, back into the legislative realm creating what for the near-term is a state-by-state battlefield scenario about the legality of abortion.  The absence of Roe will likely to call into question what since the early years of the Reagan Administration has been an essentially nation-wide alignment of the Republican Party with the pro-life (read anti-Roe) movement.  The two major political parties have been heading toward a re-definition for awhile and this decision is only going to accelerate the process. 

Naturally it also follows that the question of which political party, or which candidate for office, is the more acceptable choice for a Catholic is also going to grow more complex.  The goal of overturning Roe was always the easy go-to for drawing Catholic political allegiances in the direction of what might have otherwise proven to be questionable candidates or platforms from the Catholic perspective.  With Roe gone, other extremely important issues should rise to the top of the list of Catholic concerns that as of now have eluded a strong alignment in the existing political parties.  

For example, the recent invention of a “transgender” category of the human person and the major cultural upheaval that is now occurring around this situation is a serious concern of similar magnitude to the abortion question.  So is the issue of the legal equivocation of same-sex relationships with heterosexual relationships and marriage.  With Roe gone, the likelihood of the splintering of the existing Republican platforms surrounding these and other topics is higher. Opposition to Roe was the uneasy glue that held a variety of factions on the “right” together, and together with the Catholic position besides.  With Roe overturned, will the religious and the nominally religious factions of the Republican Party remain united in opposition to legal protections of same sex marriage and against the legal imposition of gender ideology? Only time will tell.

By no means am I lamenting the hoped-for upcoming reversal.  It needs to happen and it is a great victory.  However, I would suggest that it needs to happen because our nation now has to get pushed to the next level of major cultural arguments over the question of what is a “person”- period.  These questions have dogged us since the beginning of our history when we, tragically, created a nation built on slavery between races.  Incidentally (or not), that same question of slavery and race represents the other major instance of a Supreme Court reversal in our history, with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that brought about the end of legal, racial segregation (“separate but equal”) that the Court had first created with Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1986.  

A quick glace around our nation right now reveals that even though the Court in 1954 reversed its previously wrong decision about race, this many years later we have yet to become a bastion of racial harmony.  Quite the opposite.  That work of promoting harmony among races is never done because it is fundamentally about the conversion of the heart to rightly grasp the true meaning of personhood and identity.  Similarly, being “pro-life” is far bigger than being opposed to abortion, and its cause is never done because it, too, is about promoting and protecting the correct understanding of personhood and identity.  

A truly robust cultural argument about the immoral nature of abortion, rooted in a properly holistic view of personhood according to the divine plan of God, would incorporate an array of intertwined realities about which we are all legally misguided in the West. Besides the practice of abortion, the widespread use of artificial contraception and sterilization, the free-reign of the pornography industry, the mainstreaming of actively gay lifestyles, and the fluidity of gender identity are all gravely problematic distortions of personhood. As such all of them ought to be the subject of prohibitive legislation in a society that desires to use the force of law to shape behavior for the protection of human dignity. All of these are behavioral realities that violate basic human reason and natural law prior to being violations of religious doctrine, meaning they are not at base religious issues. Catholicism offers the sharpest focus on the manner in which these things are all immoral due to the gift of divine revelation, and the sacramental life of the Church offers the pathway to live appropriately, but one does not have to be Catholic or religious to grasp what is a distortion of personhood. The “pro-life” outlook as a political, legislative, and religious agenda must be broadened to include all of these behavioral distortions in our culture today.

The understandable but at times inordinately narrow focus on Roe vs. Wade and abortion as the defining issue of the pro-life cause served in some respects to constrain a broader conversation about all the mistaken ideas and behaviors that lead to an abortive culture. The presence of Roe itself was also a constraint since it limited the public political exchange about the issues in question to a very narrow legal or legislative focus. An authentic culture of life will emerge only out of a far larger debate about all that promotes as well as undermines human dignity and personhood in our fallen world.

Roe is about to be gone, praise God.  With it safely out of the way, the deeper, broader, tougher questions about the meaning of the human person can advance to the next level of argument.  The argument is going to be a fierce one.   The Church will again be at center-stage.  Buckle up. 

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, ordained in 2006. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. Father Reesman is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtaining his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science in the year 2000. He completed his seminary studies at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006, obtaining a Masters of Divinity. Father Reesman completed post-graduate studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, obtaining a Doctor of Ministry in 2019.
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