Those who organized the very first March for Life on January 22, 1974 – the one year anniversary of Roe v. Wade – never imagined that such an unjust law would still stand 45 years later. With the effectiveness of the Civil Rights marches fresh in their minds, it was reasonable to think that they could also successfully overturn, through democratic action, a legal judgment so clearly at odds with the justice that is owed to every human being, no matter how vulnerable or small. That optimism has stayed with the movement. We are always on the cusp of “turning this thing around.”
But the obstacles to this optimism have been substantial.
One of the first obstacles should have been evident in how the Court decided Roe v. Wade, 7-2, on “the right to privacy”. America has long had a great communitarian ethos, habits of association, the power of the neighbourhood, the front porch, the parish. But it has also long been marked by the cowboy myth of the rugged individual who does things his own way, often bending or ignoring the limits of the law for some personal code or preference.
It is a short libertarian leap to revising all laws to serve personal codes, and thus the inevitable conflicts that come with detaching the law from a recognition of a common nature, a common good, a common life. “My body, my choice” became a predictable individualistic mantra of a personal code that refuses to recognize what is owed to very real, unborn human beings.
Another unanticipated obstacle, one which the first organizers could not have fully understood, was how the economy would support and encourage an expansion of the labour force, changing wage structures that would ensure that every family pursuing the American dream would require two incomes and fewer children. From 1973-2018, the total fertility rate has fallen from nearly 4 children down to 1.9, well below the minimum replacement rate of 2.2. Among college-educated white women, the number is 1.6, nearly identical to the 1.54 in China, the result of a strictly enforced national one-child policy.
But here, as in China, what were once obstacles to overturning political, judicial, and economic dogmas opposed to the inefficient intrusions of family life, are now getting a fresh look. As Jonathan Last notes in “America’s Baby Bust,” the long-term effects of an anti-life regime are so devastating that we will be forced to break away from the libertarian mantras of “my body, my choice,” and compelled to start looking at the way pro-life policies are essential to our nation’s very survival – lest we swallow cultural cyanide.
Similarly, the sexual revolution is beginning to crumble just as it has reached its zenith. Sexual “freedom” has been a major obstacle to the advance of pro-life policies and laws, especially as abortion has become for so many a kind of “right” that insures against the failures of contraception. The same judiciary that endangered the dignity of every human being in Roe, and which threatened the integrity of marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, will soon begin to hear cases which demonstrate the vacuity of the autocratic licentiousness on which they were based. With the dignity of the human person reduced to “consent”, the courts will be flooded with cases that demonstrate the poverty of making laws ordered to changeable desires, rather than a common nature, and permanent things.
In the early years, “science” also seemed to pose real obstacles to the advance of pro-life policies. In fact, it wasn’t science itself, but a Malthusian moral dualism that twisted scientific knowledge to argue that while life may begin at conception (an indisputable fact that embryologists have known for a very long time), science cannot make “philosophical” judgments about when a human being becomes a person. Ordinary people might fairly ask, What else would a human life be? The opposition’s favoured and illuminating response: with a straight face, they often replied, quite unconvincingly, “A blob.”
This attempt to use science as an obstacle, however, has been backfiring, especially as vivid scan technology has given us a window into the womb, revealing to the popular imagination a real person, with a real beating heart, even in the first weeks of the first trimester.
The abortionist can wear a white lab coat, and pretend to stand for science, but now more than ever it’s evident that they do not have science on their side. Beneath the white lab coats are people who kill innocent human beings on the false pretence that there’s no human person until some late term “quickening”, or worse, they themselves actually believe the unfathomable claim that there’s no human person until the mother takes the baby home from the hospital, as Hillary Clinton once suggested.
Partisanship was not an obstacle in the early years of the pro-life movement. Opposition to abortion was thoroughly bi-partisan and non-partisan. But it has been difficult to maintain this as the nation has grown more sharply and dramatically divided, and as invented categories like “reproductive rights” have been used as political wedges to separate mothers from children in their womb, to pit family member against family member, and set neighbour against neighbour. The so-called “right to privacy” that decided Roe v. Wade has proven itself to be a sword that reaches not only into the womb, but also into marriage, the family, and society itself.
I attended this year’s March for Life with my 14-year old son thinking about some of these obstacles, especially the partisan one which was accentuated by two powerful phenomena: President Donald Trump addressing the March for Life Rally from the Rose Garden, and the looming March for Women which many media outlets were covering instead of the March for Life.
Given that the March for Women finds its origins in a partisan cause, namely resistance to a politician whom they deem to be against women, it should be no surprise that many would see the two marches as counter to each other. But whereas the newly-formed March for Women actually excludes pro-life groups, the long-suffering March for Life proudly claims marchers such as Democrats for Life. Another such group, Secularists for Life, tout slogans and signs which proclaim: “for my embryology text book tells me so.”
The pro-life movement still bears the marks of its non-partisan and bi-partisan origins, with those who opposed Donald Trump and felt his presence was a distraction marching arm-in-arm with those who wore their Make America Great Again caps. Despite the reality, it was the partisan narrative that many news outlets hoped to convey. Why? Quite simply, because angry partisans are running out of obstacles to place before the pro-life movement.
As some obstacles begin to crumble and others arise, surrounded by a half-million people, most of them under 30, I felt renewed this year in the optimism of those first marchers who thought they were “on the cusp of turning this thing around.” Or at least I felt renewed in the conviction, so clearly shared by waves of young men and women, that in this cause for life – the largest human rights event in the world – we shall overcome.
The March for Life will not follow the whims of partisan politics. It will not go away. It will grow. It will learn to defeat new obstacles. It will deepen. It will advance. As the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, “we shall not weary, we shall not rest,” until all the obstacles to human dignity come tumbling down like thunder.
C.C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.