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Roe v Wade’s overturning an epic victory for civil rights

The US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade abortion ruling is an epic, historic victory for true civil and human rights

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Pro-life advocates demonstrate near the US Supreme Court in Washington on 15 June 2022. Photo: CNS, Tyler Orsburn

Prior to 24 June 2022, the US Supreme Court’s most important civil rights decision was handed down on 17 May 1954. Then, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court declared racially segregated public facilities unconstitutional, effectively reversing its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld state-mandated segregation laws. Now, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, the Court has effectively buried the gross errors of constitutional interpretation made in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania (1992), the first of which invented a spurious right-to-abortion that was affirmed by the second.

Pro-life demonstrators in Washington celebrate outside the Supreme Court June 24, 2022, as the court overruled the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Photo: CNS, Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters

The dustbin of history

Roe and Casey are now consigned to the dustbin of history. The highest court of the world’s pre-eminent democracy has determined that the US Constitution includes no “right” to terminate the life of an unborn human being. In doing so, the Supreme Court has struck a blow for civil rights as important as the blow it struck in Brown v. Board of Education.

There will be ample time in the months ahead to reflect upon the political, cultural and social ramifications of the Dobbs decision, which are sure to be tremendous. For the moment, and in the immediate aftermath of a decision that at least some pro-lifers privately feared they would never see, it is good to celebrate the heroes of the pro-life cause. They fought for the truth against immense cultural and political pressures; they refused to accept the dictum of the New York Times editorial board, which, the day after Roe was issued, harrumphed and declared the abortion debate over; and they respectfully declined to follow the instruction to cease-and-desist addressed to them by the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Casey.

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An abortion demonstrator is seen near the US Supreme Court in Washington on 15 2022. The court overruled the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision in its ruling in the Dobbs case on a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks on 24 June. Photo:, Tyler Orsburn

It’s not just a ‘Catholic’ thing

Those pro-life heroes have been, and are, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and secular. Permit me to mention several Catholic heroes living and dead, whose conscientious work won the scientific, medical, philosophical, and legal arguments while creating thousands of pro-life pregnancy and maternity centers where women in crisis pregnancies can find a humane response in their immediate hour of need, and beyond.

I think of then-Mons James McHugh, who created the pro-life office at the US bishops conference. Often embattled, that office became a bulwark of the pro-life movement’s argumentation and advocacy thanks to such stalwart leaders as Gail Quinn, Richard Doerflinger, Helen Alvaré, Deirdre McQuade, Amy McInerny and so many others.

Convert to truth, convert to science: Dr Bernard Nathanson, the American doctor who drove the movement to legalise abortion in his country and was a founder of NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Nathanson and colleagues were responsible for the drive to get Roe v Wade to the Supreme Court and legalise its practice throughout the US. Nathanson converted to the prolife cause after watching an abortion performed on the-then new technology of video connected to an ultrasound scanner. After watching what actually happens in an abortion, he only ever performed one more – and then ceased completely.

Pro-life heroes

I think of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who refused to let his brother bishops flag in their pro-life advocacy when some were growing tired of the struggle.

I think of public officials of both parties: Henry Hyde of Illinois, the powerful and effective leader of congressional pro-life forces for decades; Chris Smith of New Jersey, who assumed Hyde’s mantle on his retirement; and Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.

Cardinal John O’COnnor of New York, pictured in 1999, who drove his fellow US bishops to continue their strong prolife advocacy when many were disheartened by the direction their culture was taking. He was a key figure in the long march to end abortion. Although opposition to abortion and social injustice is primarily the responsibility of lay Catholics, he showed what a difference bishops with courage to go against the tide can make and how they can support the lay vocation. Photo: CNS

I think of scholars and authors: John T. Noonan Jr., who briskly eviscerated Roe v. Wade in A Private Choice; James T. Burtchaell, CSC, whose Rachel Weeping is perhaps the most elegant book-length statement of the pro-life case; Richard John Neuhaus, a pro-life champion as both Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest, whose 1967 article in Commonweal, warning his liberal friends in the civil rights movement against being seduced by the “pro-choice” mantra, won a Catholic Press Association award (those were the days…); Mary Ann Glendon, whose impeccable scholarship has kept the pro-life flag flying boldly at Harvard Law School and throughout the world.

I think of Jeanne Mancini, who, with the unflagging support of the Knights of Columbus, has built on Nellie Gray’s work and made the annual March for Life bigger, more powerful, and ever more insistent that the pro-life movement is a pro-women movement.

I think of the Gabriel Project, Project Rachel and the volunteers who staff those expressions of Christian love and compassion, which demonstrate the mendacity of the charge that pro-lifers only care about babies before they’re born and ignore women who’ve suffered the trauma of abortion.

There are so many more. God bless them all.

Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, speaks in 2018. Alvare has been one of the most eloquent pro-life intellectuals in the public square of US life for decades. Photo: CNS, Tyler Orsburn

One final point as the debate over the right-to-life moves into state legislatures: After Dobbs, it will be harder to argue that the abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade was gestated in the womb of the Declaration of Independence and latent in the concept of liberty prevalent at the American Founding. Properly understood, the civil rights triumph of 24 June 2022 will help clear the ground on which the hard work of rebuilding a culture of life can continue — a culture that does not mistake liberty for license, which was a notion foreign to the Founders and Framers.


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