The watershed abortion case “Roe v. Wade” was decided 46 years ago, on January 22, 1973. Two facts for sure: (1) it remains “the law of the land” on abortion and (2) it is as controversial as ever.
Later court decisions have clarified “Roe” (whether the government can refuse to pay for abortions, “notification” rules, “waiting periods,” protest-free zones around abortion clinics, etc.) but its core decision stands. Nominees for court positions are scrutinized on whether they will accept “Roe” as settled law (“stare decisis”—deference to past decisions—is the expectation, but who would support this in cases like “Dred Scott”?).
Who was “Roe”?
This anonymous litigant sought to have an abortion, which was forbidden under Texas law at the time. Her real name was Norma McCorvey. Long before “Roe v. Wade” was decided she gave birth and gave the baby for adoption.
McCorvey converted to Christianity in 1995 and was baptized. She quit her job at an abortion clinic and became a pro-life activist, vowing to spend the rest of her life fighting the decision that bore her name. She joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1998. She passed away in 2017 at age 69.
What did “Roe v. Wade” determine?
The decision overturned all laws in America that restricted abortion.
The court explicitly denied that abortion was an absolute right. Rather, it was a “qualified” right. The court found a “right to privacy” in the “penumbra” of the constitution, namely in the “Due Process Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment, as the basis for this qualified right.
The court attempted to balance the pregnant woman’s right to abortion with “the potentiality of human life” by creating a system of “trimesters.”
For the first trimester, months one through three of the pregnancy, the decision for abortion is a matter (as is commonly stated) “between the woman and her physician”—essentially “abortion on demand.”
For the second trimester, months four through six, the states may regulate abortion procedures in the interest of the woman’s health.
During the third trimester, months seven through nine, the court allowed states to regulate or even ban abortion due to the “potentiality of human life” except when necessary to protect the life or health of the mother. “Health” is a very elastic term. A companion decision, “Doe v. Bolton,” determined that physical, emotional, psychological, and familial factors all relate to “health.”
In dissent, Justice Rehnquist argued that the “trimester” system was created by judicial legislation and the “right to privacy” was not to be found in the Fourteenth Amendment, being completely unknown to those who drafted it.
After “Roe v Wade”
“Roe v. Wade” didn’t really settle anything. Not in law. Certainly not in societal opinion or in social activism.
- Americans support abortion rights during the first trimester.
- Americans oppose abortion rights in the second and third trimester.
- Americans support abortion rights for those “tough cases” of rape, incest, or threat to a mother’s life or serious threat to her health.
- Americans oppose abortion rights for choosing the sex of the child, for financial reasons, or “abortion on demand.” Americans widely support regulations on abortion, such as parental notification.
These are generalizations and show a more restrictive view than “Roe” and certainly much more restrictive than the view held by abortion rights activists. They are more lenient than views of “right to life” activists.
My Convictions and Commitments as a Christian Minister
Abortion is a “litmus test” issue for politicians and judicial nominees. It is a feature of America’s “cultural divide.” The debate isn’t going away.
I have been a pro-life activist since 1972. Protestants were lonely in the movement back then. I believe (as with any “kingdom cause”) we work for incremental successes, not post-millennial fullness (as some are teaching and as many of our Praise Choruses declare).
As Christian leaders:
- We must place paramount value on human life at all stages and conditions.
- We must bring our values to bear upon our society, all along remembering we live in a pluralistic society with secular courts and representative governments. This means working toward constructive political engagement and dialogue in spite of hostile opposition.
- We must come before God often in sincere repentance for the church and for our society.
- We must maintain a positive pro-life ethic, with ministries of compassion.
- We must from the pulpit bring messages that ring with truth and grace, filled with clear biblical perspectives, presented with relevance.
- We must stand for religious liberty and come to the aid of any who are persecuted for living out their faith in the fields of medicine or in the workplace.
Proverbs 24:10-12 (NIV)
If you falter in a time of trouble, how small is your strength! Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?
–written by Donald Shoemaker Chair, Social Concerns Committee, Charis Fellowship