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On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States released the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, ending Roe v. Wade’s nearly 50-year legal hegemony over the issue of abortion throughout the U.S. Pro-life advocates, many who had been actively fighting to overturn Roe their entire adult lives, celebrated, hoping the tide had turned as our nation moved toward a future without abortion. Abortion rights advocates mourned the ruling as an attack on their rights and warned the American public of the coming of abortion deserts where women would be forced to travel across the barren wasteland of abortion-free states to find access to what they believe is essential healthcare.1
It would be premature to pass a verdict on the premonitions of either side. Nothing like the hopes or fears of the most passionate advocates materialized, but the landscape of abortion law changed. Both sides pushed advantages in states deemed politically friendly to their causes producing some surprising results. The pro-life community faced unexpected challenges, as abortion rights advocates enjoyed multiple victories establishing constitutional rights to abortion in new states, while turning back efforts to restrict abortion in others. Federal efforts by Democrats to reestablish national laws through the U.S. Congress failed, and neither side is happy with their progress.
At the same time, uncompromising voices are finding new strength. Abortion advocates expressed strong dissatisfaction with the foundations of the Roe decision and see this moment as an opportunity to reset the dialogue with language more fitting the absolute rights to autonomy they seek. Some anti-abortion advocates counter this by introducing Equal Protection legislation at the state level, pressing the moment to move our judicial system toward holding women who procure abortions accountable in the same manner we would any other individual who intentionally killed a human life. Abortion is murder, they reason, therefore those guilty of abortion ought to be treated in the same manner. The extreme representatives of both sides raise the stakes, as a population divided and less certain of their position on abortion seeks to sort out a new legal approach to an issue recently assumed to be settled law.
Our commitment to Christ requires that we don’t get caught up in the emotion of the moment. The current culture calls out harsh personalities and rewards aggression. Influence is important, but the meaning of that word has changed — and pursuit of modern concepts of influence leads us toward an increasingly narcissistic and aggressive culture and away from the character of Christ.
Pro-Choice Constitutional Victories. Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy group and the research arm of Planned Parenthood, meticulously tracks abortion legislative efforts with interactive maps and detailed graphs. They predicted 26 states would establish a near total ban on abortion but revised that prediction to 24 when Michigan voters affirmed abortion as a protected right in their state constitution, and the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down a law restricting abortion after six weeks.2 Guttmacher reports 66 clinics across the nation have ceased offering abortion services since Dobbs, with 26 of those shutting down altogether.3 States like North Dakota and Mississippi now have zero abortion clinics within their borders.
This would seem to indicate good news for pro-life forces, but there have been significant defeats. California and Vermont enshrining abortion into their state constitutions surprised no one, but Michigan doing the same is a genuine defeat. Proposal 3 in Michigan was a measure to block abortion-restricting trigger laws and to secure broad abortion rights within the state constitution.4 It passed with a surprisingly strong showing despite the heroic on-the-ground efforts of the Michigan pro-life community. In addition, Amendment 2 in Kentucky, establishing protections for the unborn in the state constitution, failed at the ballots.5 The losses in the latter two states, as well as losses in court in Utah and South Carolina, may be the result of a temporary swing back toward the middle by the public after the fall of Roe, or it may be a signal to all parties that the battle over abortion laws will be a protracted engagement with unexpected turns.
Many political pundits predicted the 2022 mid-term elections would carry a Red Wave across the United Sates with Republicans making gains due to people who were unhappy with the economy and gas prices voicing their frustration in the ballot boxes. That wave never materialized, and Democrats claim it crashed on the rock of the abortion battle.6 They successfully painted Republicans as seeking a nationwide ban on all abortions with no exceptions, which appears to have been an effective political strategy. They sought to create unease in the minds of voters while intentionally avoiding discussion of states establishing more limited abortion restrictions determined by gestational age. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake defended the approach saying, “Debating weeks is not where we want to be….People are terrible at math and terrible at biology.”7
Neither side is unequivocally winning, and neither side is completely happy. Still, others see this moment as the opportunity to rethink the way abortion is publicly engaged.
The Right to Be Not Pregnant. Charlotte Shane’s (a pseudonym) October article in Harper’s Magazine, “The Right to Not Be Pregnant,” makes a passionate case that the proper grounding of a right to abortion is not privacy or medical freedom.8 This was the failing of the Roe decision; it reduced the right to abortion to an argument about doctors and their right to exercise their judgment about when abortion is necessary under the protection of medical privacy. Roe’s reasoning was not about the woman’s absolute right to control her body, though Shane rejects the term “woman” for impregnatable people. Shane argues a strong claim to absolute autonomy is a better grounding for the right to abortion. In her words, “every impregnatable person has the right to not be pregnant.”9
Shane characterizes pregnancy as biologically invasive. The life growing inside the woman develops along a trajectory that interferes with the woman’s life. No part of the woman remains unaffected — her hormones, blood, capacity to breathe, digestion, heartbeat, everything will be impacted as the life within her grows and claims more and more biological territory. The fetus is invasive, intrusive, and disruptive. This fact alone means that any person who can become pregnant ought to have the absolute right to be not pregnant. She is not the only writer to characterize pregnancy in this light.10
Pro-choice philosopher and legal scholar Kate Greasley assesses this category of argument and finds it wanting.11 In the zeal to characterize the challenges of pregnancy, abortion advocates fail to address one morally and legally important point: the humanity of the unborn. If the unborn are human in the same way the rest of us are, if they are one of us, then this type of bodily autonomy argument makes the case that abortion is justifiable homicide. Abortion kills a human being, and the bar to reach sufficient justification for killing other human beings, both morally and legally, is understandably set high. The anatomical and physiological disruptions, though real and profound, do not normally rise to the level of existential threat to justify homicide. Even if we accept that pregnancy (the means by which all human life comes into existence) is a hostile invasion, these hostilities (granting that is what they are), do not justify a lethal response.
The Equal Protection Push. Some voices against abortion — namely, anti-abortion advocates who reject identification with the pro-life tag and prefer the term abortion abolitionists — see an opportunity to change the traditional narrative.12 Also known as immediatists, they perceive incremental legal movement toward the end of abortion as compromised and inconsistent with Christian ethics.13 The only acceptable approach is the immediate and total abolition of abortion. This approach includes championing Equal Protection legislation, petitioning states to remove clauses in state laws that exempt abortion from prosecution in murder and homicide cases, including prosecution of women seeking abortions.
One such legislative effort is underway in Georgia.14 The proposal strikes language from Georgia criminal codes that exempts lethal action toward the unborn from prosecution, including striking language from the Heartbeat Law, which protects unborn life from the moment a heartbeat is detected. The new language would remove reference to heartbeat and replace it with protection from the time of “fertilization.”15 The proposal’s supporters echo the arguments made in other states. If we really believe the unborn are human from fertilization, then we must act consistently with that belief. Abortion is murder, and anyone participating in the murder of other human beings ought to be punished appropriately. In their words, “Equal Protection does not criminalize women, it criminalizes the murder of a preborn child.”16
Advocates for this approach laud it for the clarity it offers. If members of the pro-life movement believe the unborn are one of us, then prosecuting women makes sense. Failure to take this step exposes pro-life advocates as compromised. A pastor privately voiced his conviction to me that now is the time to push for this approach, as we stand in the wake of the victory of Dobbs.
The Dobbs victory is neither as complete nor as comprehensive as some may hope to believe. The incremental approach that abolitionists abhor did, however, yield a significant victory: states can wrestle with the issue of abortion without being shackled by oppressive judicial fiats. The previously mentioned legislative developments seem to indicate that the state battles will be far more difficult than some may have anticipated. The immediatism approach offers nothing strategically new in the wake of this new reality.
Abolitionists appear to have no concern for what the law will do but only what they believe it ought to do. Pro-life incrementalists believe that abolitionists are demanding a state of affairs immediately that can come into existence only gradually as the culture becomes convinced of the humanity of the unborn. New York Times editorialist Ross Douthat points out that pro-life advocates seek, to some degree, a utopian goal.17 A modern abortion-free United States has never existed. Whatever world we are fighting to bring into reality, this new world will come step by step as the full nature of what we are striving for reveals itself with each new advancement. The unreasonable demand that the world embrace a semi-utopian vision of Equal Protection when no one, not a single person, has the slightest idea how that legal environment would function in the United States undercuts the appeal of ideological purity.
Living Christianly in an Aggressive Moment. Engaging the world as Christians on morally divisive issues can be challenging. Online engagement often quickly devolves and can breed narcissism, cruelty, and provocative rhetoric intended more to draw an audience than to communicate the truth of Christ.
Central to our relationship with God is the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are at our best when we perceive our neighborhood expansively and reject the current tendency toward tribalism. We must speak truth in clear and uncompromised terms without becoming a Christianized version of some of the worst elements of the world of contemporary influencers. The unborn are our neighbors, and we must fight to protect them. Those characterized as our enemies are also our neighbors. We serve them by drawing them to the truth, so they might live in accordance with the teachings of Christ. This isn’t merely a practice in winning arguments. We want to win people with good arguments. The law has a role to play, but so does the Christian practice of multiplying grace and love for our neighbors in our community. We can’t become so consumed with the one — championing just laws — that we neglect the other. Both sides of the coin are necessary.
Jay Watts is founder and president of Merely Human Ministries, an organization defending intrinsic human dignity.
- See Jay Watts, “The End of Roe and the Beginning of a New Fight,” Christian Research Journal 45, 02/03 (2022): 24–31.
- Elizabeth Nash and Isabel Guarnieri, “Six Months Post-Roe, 24 US States Have Banned Abortion or Are Likely to Do So: A Roundup,” Guttmacher Institute, January 10, 2023, https://www.guttmacher.org/2023/01/six-months-post-roe-24-us-states-have-banned-abortion-or-are-likely-do-so-roundup.
- Marielle Kirstein, Joerg Dreweke, Rachel K. Jones, Jesse Philbin, “100 Days Post-Roe: At Least 66 Clinics Across 15 US States Have Stopped Offering Abortion Care,” Guttmacher Institute, October 6, 2022, https://www.guttmacher.org/2022/10/100-days-post-roe-least-66-clinics-across-15-us-states-have-stopped-offering-abortion-care.
- Yue Stella Yu and Robin Erb, “Michigan Proposal 3 Supporting Abortion Rights Wins Big,” Bridge Michigan, November 9, 2022, https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/michigan-proposal-3-supporting-abortion-rights-wins-big.
- Jordan Smith, “Kentucky Voters Reject Amendment 2 in ‘Repudiation of Extreme Anti-Choice Agenda,’” The Intercept, November 9, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/11/09/abortion-rights-kentucky-election/.
- Lisa Lerer and Elizabeth Dias, “How Democrats Used the Abortion Debate to Hold Off a Red Wave,” New York Times, November 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/10/us/politics/abortion-midterm-elections-democrats-republicans.html.
- Lerer and Dias, “How Democrats Used the Abortion Debate.”
- Charlotte Shane, “The Right to Not Be Pregnant,” Harper’s Magazine, October 2022, https://harpers.org/archive/2022/10/the-right-to-not-be-pregnant-asserting-an-essential-right/.
- Shane, “The Right to Not Be Pregnant.”
- See, e.g., Pamela Paul, “Sure, Just Have the Baby,” New York Times, June 19, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/19/opinion/abortion-adoption-birth-risk.html; Irin Carmon, “I, Too, Have a Human Form: In Justice Alito’s Draft Opinion, the Pregnant Body Is Erased,” Intelligencer, May 19, 2022, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/05/roe-v-wade-draft-opinion-pregnant-body-erased.html#comments.
- Kate Greasley, Arguments About Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 60–61.
- Bradley Pierce, “WORLD News Reports on Equal Protection,” Abolish Abortion Texas, January 27, 2023, https://abolishabortiontx.org/world-news-reports-on-equal-protection/.
- “Immediatism,” Abolish Human Abortion, https://abolishhumanabortion.com/immediatism/.
- “Equal Protection|Georgia,” G3 Ministries, January 6, 2023, https://g3min.org/epa/.
- “Equal Protection Act—GA,” G3 Ministries, https://g3min.org/wp-content/uploads/Equal-Protection-Act-GA.pdf.
- “Equal Protection|Georgia,” G3 Ministries.
- Ross Douthat, “Does American Society Need Abortion?,” New York Times, December 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/14/opinion/abortion-america.html