Briefly Noted: On Jon Shields, Abortion, and the Unintended (Positive) Consequences of the Roe v. Wade Decision

At least there is something positive about the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision (1973). Or, so says Jon Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. In a recent First Things article, “Roe’s Pro-Life Legacy,” Shields argues that the Supreme Court’s decision ironically decreased the energy of the pro-choice movement while at the same time energizing grassroots pro-life efforts in the broader American culture.[1]

Shields argues, “Roe effectively disenfranchised pro-life citizens by denying them the right to vote over the basic contours of abortion policy. But it also decimated the pro-choice movement and cleared the way for a massive campaign of moral suasion” (p. 23). Roe therefore had two, and actually three, unintended effects.

First, the pro-choice movement was no longer a movement. “Before Roe, the pro-choice movement was truly a movement” characterized by letter-writing campaigns, active public debate, and legal action (p. 22). However, “After Roe, obviated by its near-total victory, the movement almost collapsed” (p. 22). The very lawyer who argued Roe, Sarah Weddington, once said after the decision that she ‘missed the energy of our pre-Roe crusade” (p. 22). Although there were sparks of a movement in the face of challenges (legal and political) in the 1980s, the “pro-choice campaign is now a largely conservative one defending the status quo.” In fact, The Pro-Choice Action Network now refuses to debate the “anti-choice.” Their inaction reveals their belief that this is a settled issue.

Second, the pro-life movement experienced a renewal and resurgence that continues to gather strength. Preference for life, not abortion, has grown in America since Roe. Shields observes that some pro-life advocates went extreme (p. 22; Eric Rudolph would be the chief example), but most pro-life activists set about winning hearts and minds through calm conversation and public discourse.

For example, groups such as Justice for All and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform inform college students of the philosophical grounds, not just religious, of the pro-life argument. Moreover, intellectuals such as Robert George and Patrick Lee serve as guides for this side of the debate (so, it’s not just “radical,” screaming pastors informing the debate). Finally, pregnancy-help centers have expanded: staffed mostly by volunteers, they help some 2.3 million women through difficult, unexpected pregnancies and provide much-needed moral support. Shields notes that these centers “are now more numerous than abortion clinics” (p. 23). All this pro-life growth in American culture was surely not intended by the pro-choice movement; it seems choice has favored life.

Third, the United States has experienced a decrease in actual abortions since the early 1980s. While those in the twenty-to-thirty-something age-group are more liberal on marriage (largely in support of “same-sex marriage”), they are notably “less pro-choice than their elders” as the decline in abortion shows. Would those rates be such without the moral suasion campaign of the pro-life movement? (p. 23).

Like Shields, I will never “make peace” with Roe v. Wade just like I would never make peace with the legalization of infanticide. Healthy societies protect those who are helpless—and who is more helpless than an unborn baby?—and those societies unwilling to do so will reap the deleterious sociocultural consequences of their barbarism.

After abortion comes infanticide. Princeton professor Peter Singer argues that Westerners can no longer believe that human beings are made specially in the image of God. Instead, we must recognize that we are highly evolved animals. Our humanness is defined not by the imago Dei but by our superior capacities such as self-consciousness, intellect, or communicative abilities. In a 1983 Pediatrics article, Singer argues, “If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.” In Singer’s mind, a high-functioning spotted owl has more right to life than an undeveloped baby or a declining Alzheimer’s patient.

Singer doesn’t mince words. In his Sept/Oct 2005 Foreign Policy article, he argues that only a mental midget could believe in sanctity of life: “By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” So Singer takes the “anthropological” strand of abortion-logic to its logical end in a way that many abortion advocates will not.

Singer is not alone. Ethicists such as Jonathan Glover (King’s College, London) and John Harris (Founder of the International Association of Bioethics, member of the British Medical Association’s ethics committee) also argue that “the sanctity of human life” is a fallacious notion, and that infanticide therefore is sometimes right. As Harris once put it, “There is no obvious reason why one should think differently from an ethical point of view, about a fetus when its outside the womb rather than when its inside the womb.” For Harris, Glover, and Singer, there is no essential difference between an unborn baby and a born baby (about this they are correct), and for this reason both abortion and infanticide can be moral choices (about this they are greviously wrong).

And the relentless march away from God’s revealed morality will not stop with infanticide. To offer just one teaser: Singer and other ethicists argue that human animals ought not always be denied the right to have sex with dead humans or with other types of animals. Singer sees nothing wrong with necrophilia; and he sees nothing wrong with “zoophilia” (his term for bestiality) as long as it does not involve cruelty toward the animal. Singer finds it plausible that human animals and other animals can have “mutually satisfying” relationships.

In response to Singer, Harris, Glover, and others who define personhood in terms of such consciousness, intellectual ability, self-motivated activity, communicative ability, and conceptual self-awareness (in order to justify abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia), we reaffirm the robust and compelling biblical teaching that human beings are imagers of the living God. As a human being, I am a rights-bearer not because of what I can do (e.g. think, do, communicate), but because of who I am (an imager).

In addition, we reaffirm the biblical teaching that God created all of his imagers with a moral law written on their hearts (Rom 2: 15). There are certain moral principles that we, as humans, cannot not know. University of Texas professor of law J. Budziszewski writes, “To summarize: Certain moral principles are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. They are the universal common sense of the human race, as well as the foundation of its uncommon sense. It makes a difference that they are right for all; otherwise there would be nothing for moral reasoning and persuasion to be about. It makes a difference that they are known to all; otherwise, even though moral reasoning and persuasion would be about something, they could never get started.”[2] One of those moral laws is that we cannot deliberately kill an innocent human being. God has given us an intuition of the sacredness of human life and, deep down, we know that we ought not take innocent human life.

In a day when the Supreme Court flouts one of the most basic moral laws (by allowing the slaughter of innocent babies pre-birth) and when prominent ethicists wish to further the flouting (by allowing the slaughter of innocent babies post-birth), the Christian community must continue to offer itself as an alternative way of life. We must point back to God’s creational design for human flourishing, upward to Christ who alone can bring healing to a society and culture broken by sins such as abortion, and forward to the new heavens and earth when Christ will reign over a kingdom in which there will be no more slaughter of the innocents. Maybe Jon Shields is right that, by God’s grace, the Roe v. Wade decision has unintentionally sapped the energy of the pro-choice movement and renewed the energy of the pro-life community.







[1] Jon A. Shields, “Roe’s Pro-Life Legacy,” in First Things (Jan. 2013): 22–24


[2] J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know (Spence, 2003), 15.

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