According to Daniel K. Williams, no matter what you think of Roe v. Wade, the idea that it was a "blessing in disguise" for galvanizing pro-life efforts is an illusion that couldn't be further from the truth.
In today's article at Public Discourse, Williams helpfully reminds us just why Roe is to be criticized—and just what progress was foregone in its course. Prior to the Roe decision, writes Williams,
there was also a large, well-organized pro-life movement that was beginning to turn back the tide against abortion legalization. After losing numerous state legislative debates over abortion policy between 1967 and 1970, pro-lifers reorganized, and beginning in 1971, they experienced a string of uninterrupted legislative victories. By using fetal photographs to convince the public of the evils of abortion, and by making Protestants, Jews, and women the spokespersons for their movement in order to avoid charges of sectarianism or chauvinism, pro-lifers gained a hearing for their cause.
In the spring of 1971, pro-lifers defeated abortion legalization bills in all twenty-five of the state legislatures that considered them. The next year, their record was almost as successful: Only one state liberalized its abortion law, and it did so only under court order. Pro-lifers were equally successful at the ballot box. When Michigan and North Dakota introduced voter initiatives to legalize abortion in 1972, pro-lifers defeated both measures by wide margins. By the end of 1972, pro-lifers thought that they were probably within only one year of repealing New York’s permissive abortion law, and the director of Planned Parenthood’s Western Region division worried that pro-lifers would soon make abortion illegal in California too. “In the West we view ’73 as a difficult year for abortion,” he confided to a colleague in the summer of 1972.
Roe stopped a victorious pro-life movement in its tracks and deprived it of its gains through the democratic process. It forced dozens of states to legalize the procedure against the will of their citizens. When Roe was issued, only nineteen states had adopted liberalized abortion laws, and only four of those states had laws on the books that allowed abortion on demand. Roe required every state to allow abortion on demand.
Williams concludes that the most severe criticism of Roe should focus on the deprivation of personhood status that it permits for a whole class of human beings—as well as the trend it follows in making false assurances of privacy, including that of a woman "whether to bear children." The result, according to J.P. McFadden, is that "the Court’s decision put our nation officially in favor of killing by law."
All of this, according to Williams, means that any real progress actualized before 1973 will be even harder to recover.
If Roe is overturned someday, its reversal will not end legal abortion in the United States, nor will it likely have an immediate impact on the abortion rate, because the states that are the largest providers of abortion have already signaled that they will continue to permit unrestricted abortion in the event that Roe is overturned. Nor would Roe’s reversal end the nation’s debate over abortion; in fact, Jon Shields is probably right to argue that the reversal would result in a pro-choice backlash.
Yet if Roe is reversed, no state legislature or lower court will ever again have to accept abortion as a sacrosanct constitutional right, and pro-lifers will once again have the freedom to argue, without fear of contempt or ridicule, that the Constitution protects the right to life of the unborn child. Roe cut off public discussion of these questions; the reversal of Roe would open it up again.
Surely all pro-lifers can agree that Roe is a travesty of justice against the unborn child's right to life. Still, they need to make the right criticism ofRoe.The decision neither started legal abortion nor hurt pro-choice momentum, but instead set back a trajectory of pro-life progress that is still reviving after forty years.