Roe v. Wade at 40: Where Do We Go From Here?
Past Failures and Future Resolves in the Battle for Human Life
America’s holocaust continues.
Today more than 3,000 children will be murdered in the womb through surgical abortion. These dead children will be heaped on the more than 54 million others who have preceded them since the darkest day in American legal history which occurred when the Roe v. Wade decision was rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Forty years ago today, our nation’s highest court legally sanctioned the killing of the unborn.
As we consider this bloody slaughter, it behooves us to ask three key questions: How did Roe v. Wade come about? What has been the Church’s response over the last forty years? And, where do we go from here?
The Legal Backdrop for Roe: The Abandonment of Original Intent
In examining America’s legal history, it is clear that Roe v. Wade did not arise out of a vacuum. The decision flowed from a legal trend that had been in motion for more a hundred years in which the meaning of the U.S. Constitution was being increasingly redefined based on the view that it was an “evolving document.” Rather than defending its original intent as envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution, the black robed judges who presided over our nation’s courts were interpreting it to suit their own personal notions of what they deemed best for society.
This trend is pointedly illustrated in a seminal case that the Supreme Court handed down in 1965, eight years before Roe was decided — Griswold v. Connecticut.
Doug Phillips, a constitutional attorney and the founder of Vision Forum Ministries, notes the significance of this earlier landmark decision: “You cannot understand Roe unless you understand Griswold, and you cannot understand Griswold unless you understand the changing nature of judicial interpretation.”
In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down a law which forbade contraception use on the basis of “the right to privacy,” a doctrine found nowhere in the Constitution, yet one the justices derived from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the document.
Phillips explains the Court’s strategy in invoking these terms in Griswold:
[The court] is speaking of little glowing halos around the broad-sweeping principles that are somehow emitted from the Constitution. In point of fact, they are telling us there is nothing in the Constitution that grants ‘the right to privacy,” but it sure seems like it should be there. . . . What happened in Griswold laid the groundwork for Roe and the murder of unborn children.
The Hammer Falls: Unborn Children are Not Persons
The case of Roe v. Wade involved a suit made on behalf of Norma McCorvey (under the alias of “Jane Roe”) who was unable to secure an abortion in Texas based on the state’s law at the time. While she had already given birth to her child by the time the case was heard, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of McCorvey on appeal in a 7-2 decision, invoking the “right of privacy” rationale that had been invented in Griswold.
While the Court was less than confident in defending the “right of privacy” doctrine from the Constitution itself, it nonetheless expanded it to include the right of a mother to murder her unborn child. In writing the majority opinion for the court, Justice Harry Blackmun stated:
[The] right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or . . . in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.
Even as the justices in the majority invoked the Fourteenth Amendment as a purported “source” for the so-called “right to privacy,” the Supreme Court did an in-run around the Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause — which stipulates that “no state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” — by denying the personhood of children in the womb.
Blackmun wrote: “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.”
Justice Byron White and William Rehnquist — the two judges who opposed the decision — took the majority’s reasoning to task in their dissent:
I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant women and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes.
The Cultural Landscape: A Weak and Abdicated Church
Though the legal trends that lead to Roe v. Wade are important to examine, even more important is where the Church was during this time.
Dan Becker, President of Georgia Right to Life and Field Director of Personhood USA, puts the matter bluntly: “How did [Roe] come about? It came about because of the absence of the Church.”
Doug Phillips agrees:
The Church completely abdicated from speaking to the legal, ethical, and biblical principles that apply to culture and to law. When Roe was ultimately declared by the Court, many Evangelical Christians had nothing to say to it, because they didn’t have a biblical worldview. For more than a century, the Church had increasingly resorted to a form of religious pietism which had no practical application to life and important cultural issues. The result was lamentable — the withdraw of the Church from every area of society meant the demise of our culture and our law system.
Dr. George Grant, a pro-life advocate who has written prolifically in defense of the unborn, offers a similar view.
As the Church, Grant states, “we were not preaching the Word of God, we were not training and equipping disciples, we were not reinforcing and strengthening the family and the other spheres.”
This led, argues Grant, to “a Church that had so marginalized itself intellectually and culturally that it was constitutionally incapable of speaking to the problems [of the day] articulately. That set up Roe v. Wade.”
Delving deeper, Phillips points to the blights of social Darwinism, utilitarianism, and radical feminism as key cultural forces that paved the way for Roe.
While the Church, for example, has historically embraced the sanctity of life from conception to death and welcomed children as a blessing, American Evangelicals in the twentieth century forsook these roots for a selfish course rooted in humanistic, evolutionary theory. Phillips observes:
The Church embraced the basic tenets of Margaret Sanger’s vision for the eugenic age which said that some people’s life is not worth living; that men can lawfully manipulate their reproduction; and that some babies shouldn’t be brought into this world.
One result attending this shift was that, by the middle decades of the twentieth century, mainline Evangelical churches had embraced contraceptive use as a legitimate practice. In 1960, the Church accepted use of the Pill, which is known to act as an abortifacient. This occurred despite the fact that, prior to the last century, the orthodox Church has universally condemned contraceptive use as a selfish perversion of God’s design for human intimacy between husband and wife.
To paraphrase Hosea’s indictment: We sowed the wind — and when Roe was handed down on January 22, 1973 — we reaped the worldwind.
The Church Awakens: Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
Though the pall of death loomed over America’s unborn with the Roe decision, the Evangelical Church was not quick to wake from its slumber. While Roman Catholics were faster on point in the battle over the sanctity of human life, Protestants throughout the ’70s largely stayed on the sidelines.
Many longstanding leaders in the pro-life movement who are still active today credit Francis Schaeffer as a key prod who prompted Protestants to enter the fight. Dr. George Grant notes the significance of Schaeffer’s 1979 book and accompanying video, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which confronted the issues of abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide; as well as Schaeffer’s best-selling book, A Christian Manifesto, released in 1981, as works that spurred many Evangelicals to engage the arena in defense of life.
Dan Becker of Georgia Right to Life offers these comments:
Francis Schaeffer was the one who brought most of the evangelical church to the pro-life movement itself back in the early ’80s. It was totally absent from the culture completely, prior to anything having to do with the sanctity of life. It wasn’t on the radar of [most] churches [until Schaeffer brought it to their attention].
Jim Zes, a Reformed Baptist who has been fighting for the sanctity of life for many years in the St. Louis area, remembers a billboard Schaeffer took out in a major Florida city that said, in essence, “Abortions clinics are open with permission by the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Schaeffer’s salvo on the Church’s lethargy is a theme that has motivated Zes to remain engaged in this battle for the long haul.
The Roaring ’80s: Progress and Compromise
As the ’80s progressed, pro-life Evangelicals gained more traction, notoriety, and influence. 1988 was a particularly noteworthy year for the movement on several fronts. On the fifteenth anniversary of Roe, Dr. George Grant published Grand Illusions, an earth-shattering expose of the legacy of Planned Parenthood that became a best-seller which has since been reissued in numerous languages and editions.
Also that year, Operation Rescue, under Randall Terry’s leadership, staged a series of controversial abortion clinic blockades in Atlanta, Georgia, surrounding the Democratic National Convention which resulting in more than 1,200 arrests.
Yet while the pro-life movement gained remarkable ascendancy and public awareness at this time, it was during this same general period that the movement on the whole took a turn for the worse, in terms of its core commitments.
The derailment occurred in conjunction with proposed changes to the Hyde Amendment, which since 1976 had banned federal Medicaid funding for abortion. In 1981, pro-lifers strenuously fought for rape, incest, and health of the mother exceptions to be dropped from the Hyde Amendment and won. Throughout the ’80s, the advocacy of such exceptions was deemed unacceptable by the major pro-life organizations, both Catholic and Protestant.
However, as the ’80s were coming to a close, the debate over the Hyde Amendment was reopened on Capitol Hill, and the exceptions of rape and incest came to the fore of the discussion.
“This led to a debate within the [pro-life] movement about whether or not it would damage the underlying presupposition that all life is sacred and should be protected as an inalienable right,” notes Dan Becker.
In a radical departure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee, and other leading pro-life organizations signed off on the changes and created a “new normal” of what it means to be pro-life — that a politician or other operative in the political arena can support the murder of one category of children and still be deemed “pro-life.”
Looking back on this titanic sea-change, Becker notes the fall-out that resulted: “By abandoning the basic Christian premise of imago Dei, we invited a pragmatism based on natural law. We compromised and capitulated to the point in the pro-life movement where it became ineffectual — both politically and as a preservative agent as salt.”
Becker explains the folly of the rape and incest exception according to God’s law, a principle long recognized in English common law:
Deuteronomy 24:16 says that a child shall not be put to death for the crimes of its father. That means that if a rapist commits an act of violence against a woman, and she conceives, we [must] protect that child, and we [must] advocate that that child should not pay the penalty for its father’s sin.
In assenting to the Hyde Amendment exceptions, a Pandora’s box of compromise was opened. From it came a broader unbiblical strategy that included support of parental notification laws, 24-hour waiting periods, and various other legislation that conceded the premise of the debate.
Pro-lifers were now supporting bills which said in so many words, “You can kill your child, so long as your parents approve; you can kill your child, so long as you wait 24 hours before the knife falls.”
Incrementalism: The Good and the Bad
Many critical of such compromises don’t suggest that incrementalism in the fight for life is wrong in all cases, but that incrementalism should only be pursued when the core principles of the sanctity of all human life are maintained, not undermined.
Doug Phillips remarks: “If we can pass pro-life laws that don’t ratify the foundation of abortion’s ‘lawfulness,’ or reinforce the wickedness of abortion as a practice, this is something worth pursuing.”
Dan Becker notes that creating tension over competing legal precedents has warrant when done on the right terms: “You can identify a class of human life that you can protect, as long as you don’t name a physical class that you won’t protect, and therefore become complicit.”
In considering positive examples of incrementalism, Dr. Grant commends William Wilberforce for consideration: “When you look at the incrementalism strategies of someone like a Wilberforce . . . the incrementalism reforms were never couched in such a way as to concede the original premise.”
Grant also highlights the wrong approach to incrementalism that officials in Amsterdam took in response to prostitution, “They said we are not going to be able to ban prostitution, so we’ll isolate it and stigmatize it. So what happens then is that it becomes a tourist attraction. You can’t concede the premise of an opponent’s argument.”
Phillips warns of the danger of so-called “victories” that concede the foundation:
The idea that we are accomplishing a victory by ratifying the execution of children on the condition that the mother or father of the baby have some sort of warning of the emotional or psychological effect that may occur if they murder their child, or that a cancerous effect may result — that it’s okay to kill as long as we “notify” — is simply horrific. It’s an ethical nightmare which reinforces the very thing we are fighting against.
Score-Card Gamesmanship: Pro-Death is the New Pro-Life
A prominent feature of the compromised political strategy employed by pro-life groups is how they have score-carded candidates on the issues.
The National Right to Life Committee has been particularly notorious in this regard. The NRLC, for example, endorsed Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney as “pro-life” when their past track records as well as contemporary statements provided no defensible basis for such recognition. Both McCain and Romney have consistently supported the murder of children conceived by rape and incest, and have vocally advocated weakening the Republican Party Platform on abortion, among other troubling actions on their part that have threatened the sanctity of life.
But it’s not just presidential races where National Right to Life has gone askew. Last year, the NRLC got well-deserved blowback from the Boston Globe when they spent $45,000 sending out mailers in support of Sen. Scott Brown, who openly supports legalized abortion.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham leveled the boom on NRLC: “Even though Brown has been loudly proclaiming that he favors abortion rights, the antiabortion group gave him a 100 percent rating in his first year as a senator, and an 80 percent rating in his second. And it continues to shower him with paper roses.”
The flier that the NRLC mailed in support of Sen. Brown showed a picture of a fetus, a little baby, and an older woman. The flier’s headline was hardly subtle: “It’s time to take America back. . . for LIFE!”
When confronted on this hypocrisy, David O’Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life, admitted that the NRLC sometime supports candidates who favor legalized abortion.
“He is pro-choice,” O’Steen stated. But “if you look at the two candidates, Elizabeth Warren’s position is very extreme. She can only be characterized as pro-abortion.”
Dr. George Grant comments on this trend which he has observed for more than two decades.
“The reality is that Al Gore was never pro-life. When he was a [U.S.] rep and then a Senator [from Tennessee], he was never the pro-life, southern Conservative he was made out to be” who then “converted” to become pro-choice when he was tagged to run as Bill Clinton’s running mate in 1992.
“It was the silly scorecards that took such a shallow representations of [Gore’s] voting record and declared him to be pro-life,” remarks Grant. “But he was always . . . rooted in Bismarkian, Nietzschean, real politick.”
The way a policy group scores candidates reveals their priorities, Grant maintains.
“Most scorecards emerge from institutions that have agendas, and the scorecards usually say more about the agenda of the organization than the candidates themselves,” he notes. “The onus is on pastors to inform their congregations that this is the case.”
This said, Grant does see some value in scorecards, but encourages them to be used only as a first step in getting an education about a particular candidate or candidates, as they have inherent limitations. “There are always hazards to any kind of shorthand, any kind of abbreviated declaration.”
Doug Phillips argues that policy groups should stop misleading others about candidates’ positions when life is at stake and simply tell the truth. “What we need to be saying is not, ‘This candidate is pro-life with exceptions; but this candidate is pro-death with exceptions. This person believes that it’s okay to kill some babies, but not all of them.’”
Appealing to the fundamentals, Phillips offers this as the benchmark in endorsing candidates for public office:
We should never support a candidate who supports the murder of any children through abortion. And until our candidates know that, they are going to keep saying and doing only as much as they have to in order to appease us.
Back on Track: Saving the 100, Not Just the 99
Despite negative trends among various leading pro-life groups, the leadership of a number of state organizations has openly repented of past compromise and purposed to return to biblical foundations and definitions in the battle for human life.
Among them is Georgia Right to Life who, in the year 2000, jettisoned the “rape and incest exception” as an acceptable “pro-life” position and has self-consciously sought to return the national debate back to the foundational argument of “personhood” that was a main focus of the pro-life movement prior to the Hyde Amendment compromise.
Tennessee and Alaska’s pro-life groups have followed suit in rejecting “rape and incest exception” in their candidate endorsement policy.
Dan Becker, who is the current president of Georgia Right to Life, notes the blessing that has occurred since GRL made this change twelve years ago.
“Georgia is the only state in the nation where all nine statewide offices that are elected by the voters statewide are pro-life without exception,” he observes. “We have gone from the 50th most protected state in the nation to the 9th.”
Becker adds this salvo: “No longer do we say, ‘We’re going to save the 99 and pray for the 1.’ We’re going to save all 100.”
While GRL’s position is not without major detractors in the movement, Becker is positive about the opportunities that their stand for principle has opened up for them.
“We are impacting the movement in ways that are exciting, new, and effective,” he remarks. “I’ve [now] been tasked to implement the Georgia model in other states. The [fight for personhood] is the new paradigm of pro-life activity for the 21st Century.”
Personhood Is the Battle: The Challenges that Lie Ahead
Becker’s insistence that “personhood” return to the center of the debate is based squarely on principle — yet it also anticipates the future horrors on the horizon that will come if this standard is not thoroughly defended and upheld. And the battleground, Becker maintains, is far broader than simply abortion.
“Because we’ve only been anti-abortion — instead of thoroughly defending the doctrine of imago Dei [in all that it entails] — we are only operating on one cylinder, while the culture is running on twelve cylinders,” Becker notes.
He then explains the implications:
We have ceded a lot of battleground in the emerging technologies and on the issue of personhood for the elderly. Because of the burgeoning [aging Baby Boomers], we will see the fight for personhood become increasingly important for the elderly, as their personhood is denied through rationed healthcare decisions that define who is protected under the law and who is not.
Great challenges already exist in the field of genetics, as arguments for trans-humanism are being advanced by medical practitioners and ethicists who deny that man is created in God’s image with certain inherent limitations that he, as a creature, is not free to manipulate.
“’When are we human?’ is being debated — what is a human being? — the definition is up for grabs right now,” remarks Becker. “What if we’re okay with trans-genic animal/human hybrids, and we start tinkering with that in our law to allow for it?”
He also comments on the popularity of Spiderman, the Hulk, Ironman, etc. and states that the genetic-manipulation and “enhancements” of these Comic Book icons so popular on the big screen reflect part of a real, raging debate in academia that is hardly fiction.
As complicated and thorny as all of this is, Becker argues that the answer at its core is really quite simple.
“It’s the doctrine of imago Dei,” he says. “As a culture and as a political system . . . [we must call on all] to recognize what God has already granted — an inalienable right to life based on the doctrinal teaching we have understood that has shaped Western history two or three times over the last two thousand years.”
A Blueprint for Victory: Humble Repentance for Our Sins
The last forty years have been one of horror and bloodshed for the unborn.
The question now is: Where do we go from here?
Dr. George Grant asserts that the Evangelical Church must begin by getting its priorities straight.
Commenting on the recent Newtown massacre, he laments, “More Christians are concerned that their Second Amendment gun rights are being taken away than seeing the inconsistencies in this rhetoric, given the murder today of 3,300 children, and tomorrow of 3,300 children, and the next day of 3,300 children.”
Jim Zes emphasizes the need for the Church to not only focus on missions of mercy, such as crisis pregnancies centers and adoption — both of which play an important role in Christian outreach — but for the Church to reclaim its prophetic voice and, once again, call good, “good” and evil “evil” and to confront the culture courageously.
Zes says we must affirm God’s law as the standard as part of a clear Gospel message of repentance and hope.
Dr. Grant agrees with this assessment, but says our voice of confrontation to the culture should only sound once we as the Church confess our own sins and repent. “The need in our day is to not so much practice Jeremiads, but Nehemiads.”
He then explains the quandary. “There’s much to lament; there’s much to critique in our culture,” he confesses. “[Y]et the Church is in no position to give our culture Jeremiads because we are so compromised. We can’t give Jeremiads of substance because we are guilty of virtually anything we might lament.”
Our first step, Grant asserts, is for Christians “to come to the ruin and cry out to Almighty God in all humility, as Nehemiah does in Nehemiah 1, and get busy with the hard work of cleaning up the rubble.”
Grant’s main point is this: We can’t take our axe to the culture’s idols until we’ve cleaned up our own house.
Doug Phillips offers these sobering words in closing the discussion: “How can we possibly expect to win the battle for life when we are killing our own children in the womb through abortifacient contraception — when we’re refusing to take an uncompromising stand for all of life?”
Hosea’s pointed words are timely for today’s wayward Church:
Come, and let us return unto the LORD: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. . . . Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the LORD: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)
As we battle for the sanctity of all human life, we as the Church must forsake our wickedness, fall on our face in humility, and repent.
Only then should we expect God’s favor on our land.
 Yvonne Abraham, “Senator Brown trying to have it both ways,” Boston Globe, October 28, 2012.
 Noah Bierman, “Antiabortion group sends out mailers for Scott Brown, who favors legalized abortion,” Boston Globe, October 25, 2012.