At the start of 1973 the majority of States outlawed abortions entirely. New York , Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington (state) had already legalized abortion in nearly all cases before the fetus was viable. The following states allowed some abortions: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, California and Oregon. Soon, the Supreme Court will hear a case from Mississippi that could undermine Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. The new case, concerning a state law that seeks to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, will be reviewed by a Supreme Court holding a seeming 6-to-3 conservative majority. In the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned, it does not mean that abortions are no longer legal, it means that the policy and law decisions will return to each State for determination – at least that seems to be the views of those who write on constitutional law – both conservative and liberal. Of course the Supreme Court can render a decision that falls between letting Roe v. Wade stand and a complete overturn of the law.
It won’t change anything in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, but it is likely to bring changes – the breadth of which I would not pretend to know. But consider this: with Roe v. Wade being the “law of the land” the Church’s approach had a central focus on Washington DC in terms of its advocacy and lobbying – not to say local dioceses and metropolitans (a collection of dioceses) were not active at the state level. There were state lobbying agencies, and local call-to-actions, but the public centerpiece was the annual march on Washington DC in January each year.
Since our moral stance will not change (and in case you stumbled upon this post, I am a Catholic priest and support the church’s position and policy objectives. Hence “our” is the Catholic Church)…. There may be little change in the goals and objectives of advocacy at the State level. But as the opening paragraph noted, 48 years ago when Roe v. Wade was decided, there was not a unified policy or law in the States. What about now? 28 States have changes to their abortion laws moving through state legislatures – the majority of them restricting access to some degree.
David Leonhardt, a writer for the New York Times, penned an article: How Abortion Views Are Different, a look at the state of public opinion. He notes that the Justices are not immune from public opinion.
His article is worth the read to discover that large percentage of people are not counted in the ranks of “unfettered” (30%) or “zeo” (20%) access to abortions. The remaining 50% are folks that hold a view of some measure of restricted access. Leonhardt writes: “If the Supreme Court overrules or substantially weakens Roe, this intense debate will play out state by state. Many states are likely to restrict abortion access substantially.”
I wonder if a substantial weakening of Roe, while it would not change our moral stance, would it change our messaging. Would the Church have an audience outside of its own pews that would be willing to listen to its current messaging – especially within the 50% group. I believe New York has already re-written its state statutes so that in the event Roe v. Wade fell, full access to abortions would automatically be in place. The Catholic campaign would remain the same in New York. But what about a State where revised abortion law would severely restrict access but does not eliminate it? The moral stance is unchanged, but would an interim goal be to move people along the continuum of opinion towards zero access? Probably not, but I think such a campaign would have to be substantively different than the ones now in place.
If Leonhardt is correct about the sway of public opinion in the Supreme Court leading to change, we know such sway is paramount in State legislatures via the voting booth, Lionhardt’s article seems like a good place to start considering the new frame and ground of public opinion which occupies many positions in the middle of the two ends.
photo credit: AP News