Overturning Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement’s holy grail almost from the moment in 1973 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion to be a constitutional right.
And given the high court’s current conservative-majority makeup, some legal analysts believe it’s a very real possibility that the justices could be poised to strike down, or severely narrow, the court’s landmark decision on abortion.
But guess what? Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will still be legal the next day in most of the United States.
Only about five states have so-called “trigger laws” that would immediately prohibit abortion if and when the high court strikes down Roe. A handful of states have unenforced pre-Roe laws on the books that could theoretically be revived while at least a dozen states have laws that will keep abortion legal in a post-Roe America.
Basically, we would return to the kind of patchwork quilt of varying state-level abortion laws that existed before 1973. That begs the question: What does a post-Roe future mean for the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church in the United States?
Steven P. Millies, writing this week at America Magazine, gets it right: The battle will move to the states, where legislatures from Alaska to Maine will be lobbied on abortion-related legislation.
“The day Roe is overturned, you have 50 simultaneous battles for abortion,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told me for a story I wrote earlier this year in Our Sunday Visitor.
In the same article, Clarke Forsythe, the senior counsel for Americans United for Life, told me, “There is going to be plenty of work to do for the next quarter century, perhaps beyond.”
That means that abortion, even in a post-Roe United States, will likely remain a preeminent political topic for the nation’s Catholic bishops.
In case you missed it, the use of “preeminent” was a topic of debate at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent plenary. Some bishops believed that formulation has been, and will continue to be, exploited in elections at the expense of other important moral imperatives, such as caring for creation, welcoming the stranger and protecting vulnerable people who already living.
The majority of bishops voted to keep the “preeminent” language in a letter that will accompany Faithful Citizenship, the bishops’ quadrennial teaching document on political participation.
Over at America, Millies envisions a future following a reversal of Roe where bishops continue to push with zeal for abortion to be outlawed at the state level. The result, he fears, is that other issues will continue to be sidelined.
“Is there any point where opposition to abortion can share priority with other issues important to Catholics?” Millies asks.
Believing that the bishops “have started something they do not know how to stop,” Millies wonders whether the bishops will seek even stricter laws, perhaps targeting the medical licenses of abortion providers, or even turning our attention beyond US borders.
Asks Millies, “Just how far must U.S. Catholics go?”
It’s a fair question. In a post-Roe world, will faithful Catholics refocus their attention and prioritize other important issues? Or, will Catholics, say, be encouraged to focus their energies on pushing for a pro-life amendment to the US Constitution, even as they are asked to invest in efforts to lobby for state-level legislation?
“The goalposts keep moving because decades of binary cultural and political argument means that reversing Roe is no longer enough,” says Millies, who also argues in America that “the moral test of whether one opposes abortion strongly enough has become perhaps more significant than any outcomes that can reasonably be expected or achieved by that opposition.”
That’s consistent with my thoughts, spelled out in a previous blog post, that the way we as a Church talk about abortion and pro-life strategy has become stagnantly myopic, where real discussion and honest debate have been replaced by litmus tests, shibboleths, catch phrases and bumper sticker thinking.
By the way, don’t assume for a second that the pro-choice side would take a reversal of Roe lying down. Those who see legal abortion as being closely tied in with women’s rights will almost surely redouble their efforts to restore a constitutional right to abortion. They would also mount aggressive campaigns of their own in state legislatures across the country.
And all this would be happening against the backdrop of a fragmented electorate. According to Gallup, about a quarter of the U.S. population supports access to abortion in any circumstances, 21 percent believes it should be illegal in all circumstances and 53 percent says abortion should be legal in some circumstances.
So when you war-game all this out, it’s difficult to see an “endgame” or an “exit strategy” where either side, both strong in their convictions and backed by equally large segments of the population, ever surrenders. Both have invested too much time and energy, too many man-hours and millions of dollars, to walk away from this battle.
Without a huge change in the culture, I fear this has the making of a “forever war.” And as we all know, wars have casualties, in this case not only the unborn, but also migrants, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, and creation itself.