Yesterday morning Ryan Anderson kicked off a fine symposium for Public Discourse, on Roe v. Wade at 40 years. I'm glad that 40 years into one of the most divisive issues our country has ever faced, Mr. Anderson draws a great deal of optimism, one fed from the well of the late Richard Neahaus:
As Fr. Neuhaus (paraphrasing T. S. Eliot) reminded us in one of his last public addresses, “there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.” As he saw it, “To be recruited to the cause of the culture of life is to be recruited for the duration; and there is no end in sight, except to the eyes of faith.”
Just so, and so too for the fights for religious liberty and the protection of marriage. Arguments must be developed, coalitions formed, strategies devised, and witness borne. Witness to the truth matters for its own sake, but persistent, winsome witness also tends to bear good fruit, even if it takes forty years and counting.
Still, Mr. Anderson's optimism seems a bit ungrounded in its analysis. He writes of the many signs of "winning" the abortion debate:
And now, well, the pro-life side has, in a word, won. No, Roe hasn’t been overturned. But can anyone find a law professor who actually defends Roe as good jurisprudence? Even the Supreme Court—in its Casey decision upholding Roe, after two decades of attempted rationalizations—couldn’t bring itself to declare Roe right on the merits. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious moral philosopher who cogently defends abortion without also justifying infanticide.
If the choice is killing newborns up to age two or protecting life in the womb, the pro-life side wins, hands down. Even socially, abortion is on the wane. Hollywood doesn’t celebrate abortion; Juno, Knocked Up, and Bella all celebrate choosing life. “Pro-choicers” can’t even bring themselves to say which choice it is that they affirm; “abortion” has become an ugly utterance.
I'm not sure Mr. Anderson is right in where he places his optimism. I worry that in his analysis he has confused signs of change for signs of optimism when really, as a doctor analyzing a patient, we ought to realize that the disease is not quite as it seems. Indeed, ultrasounds in their 3D and 4D reality have long ended any real doubt that the unborn child is a human baby. And yet, men and women still abort. That alone indicates that convincing people that the unborn is indeed a child and not merely a choice was never a sufficient condition (or perhaps even a necessary condition) to end the acceptance of abortion-on-demand in our culture.
What's more, it has not been merely enough that the legal community rejects the jurisprudential logic of Roe, and yet, still accepts its core holding. Indeed, while the logic of Roe may have lost its force, its progeny (and its predecessors) have not. What Casey and its infamous sweet mystery of life passage have created may indeed be far worse. And simply vacating Roe on the intellectual level has done nothing to dislodge Roe's foothold as "the law of the land" within our culture. The Greeks and Romans may indeed have gone many generations worshiping gods and goddesses they certainly knew did not exist. This, however, did not end the impact (for the ill) that many of these gods had on their lives. Sometimes, convincing people of the truth simply isn't enough.
The abortion argument has always been much deeper than "winning the argument"—and if what Mr. Anderson says is true, then we are to ask ourselves, "why are we still largely a culture that tolerates and accepts such deaths?"
Mr. Anderson wants to praise and buck up optimism—and he is largely right to put forward an optimistic attitude because we are a people of hope. But the signs of that hope can't be mere human accomplishments which can be so easily shown to be counterfactual to our very hope. At Roe's 40th birthday party, perhaps a different foundation for the optimism. Ultimately, it is not in the political, legal or even pop-cultural realm where we will see the end to a culture of abortion-on-demand. It will be in the increasing networks and communities of people reaching out to those men and women in need. It will be in an ever-growing awareness that a moment of crisis remains first and foremost a moment for love over loneliness, for solidarity over the individual. Changing one single law will never change a woman's ultimate ability to end her pregnancy—and I know Mr. Anderson does not subscribe to that position. So we should be careful to put so much optimism in the sifting sands of public discourse and public outcry and look for that optimism elsewhere.
Otherwise, we run the risk of merely justifying our own existence, by simply combating ever changing discourses and discussions.