George Weigel

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Dobbs and the Vindication of American Democracy

Prior to June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court’s most important civil rights decision was handed down on May 17, 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 Organization, the Court has effectively buried the gross errors of constitutional interpretation made in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the first of which invented a spurious right to abortion that was affirmed by the second.  

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 U.S. 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.   

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-Monsignor James McHugh, who created the pro-life office at the U.S. 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.

I think of Cardinal John J. 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 upon his retirement; and Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.

I think of scholars and authors: John T. Noonan Jr., who briskly eviscerated Roe v. Wade in A Private Choice; James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., 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. 

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 June 24, 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.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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