Abortion and the Supreme Court: Advancing the Culture of Death

National Conference of Catholic Bishops
November 15, 2000

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton ushered in legalized abortion on request nationwide. By denying protection to unborn children throughout pregnancy, these rulings dealt a devastating blow to the most fundamental human right -- the right to life.

In its 1992 Casey decision the Court could not muster a majority for the view that Roe and Doe were rightly decided. Yet the controlling opinion insisted that even if these decisions were wrong, they must stand because Americans have now fashioned their way of life on the availability of abortion.

No more damning indictment of the coarsening effects of Roe on our national character can be imagined. This ruling has helped to create an abortion culture:

in which many Americans turn to the destruction of innocent life as an answer to personal, social and economic problems;
which encourages many young men to feel no sense of responsibility to take care of the children they helped to create and no loyalty to their child's mother;
in which men who do feel responsibility for their children are left helpless to protect them;
whose casualties include not only the unborn but the countless thousands of women who have suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually from the deadly effects of abortion;
in which fathers, grandparents, siblings, indeed entire families suffer and are forever changed by the loss of a child.
The principles of Roe and Doe have also been used to call into question the right to life of newborn children with disabilities and adults with serious illnesses. In 1997 the Court denied a constitutional "right" to assisted suicide, perhaps realizing that its legal reasoning on abortion must be reined in if it was not to exert a further corrosive effect on the protection of life after birth.

However, any hope that the Court might reverse course on abortion itself was shattered this year. In Stenberg v. Carhart, a majority of five justices ruled that even the killing of a child mostly born alive is protected by what the Court called "the woman's right to choose."

This decision has brought our legal system to the brink of endorsing infanticide. Already the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League has used this decision's expansion of the logic of Roe to attack congressional efforts to reaffirm that a child completely born alive is a legal person. Such a policy, said this group, is "in direct conflict with Roe," which "clearly states that women have the right to choose prior to fetal viability." The euphemism of "the right to choose," routinely used to avoid mentioning abortion, is now being used to justify killing outside the womb.

Ultimately this issue is not about "when life begins," or even exclusively about abortion. Modern medicine has brought us face-to-face with the continuum of human life from conception onwards, and the inescapable reality of human life in the womb. Yet our legal system, and thus our national culture, is being pressed to declare that human life has no inherent worth, that the value of human life can be assigned by the powerful and that the protection of the vulnerable is subject to the arbitrary choice of others. The lives of all who are marginalized by our society are endangered by such a trend.

As religious leaders, we know that human life is our first gift from a loving Father and the condition for all other earthly goods. We know that no human government can legitimately deny the right to life or restrict it to certain classes of human beings. Therefore the Court's abortion decisions deserve only to be condemned, repudiated and ultimately reversed.

As United States citizens, we deplore the fact that our nation is at risk of forgetting the promise made to generations yet unborn by our Declaration of Independence: that our nation would respect life as first among the inalienable rights bestowed on us by our Creator. To uphold that promise, the nation's founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. We must do no less.

We recommit ourselves to the long and difficult task of reversing the Supreme Court's abortion decisions -- Stenberg v. Carhart as well as Roe v. Wade itself, which laid the foundation for a right to take innocent life. We invite people of good will to explore with us all avenues for legal reform, including a constitutional amendment.

Building a culture of life in our society will also require efforts reaching beyond legal reform. We rededicate our Church to education, public policy advocacy, pastoral care, and fervent prayer for the cause of human life, as articulated in our Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. In so doing, we hope to help bring an end to the abortion culture in our society. In the words of Pope John Paul II, we hope and pray "that our time, marked by all too many signs of death, may at last witness the establishment of a new culture of life, the fruit of the culture of truth and of love" (The Gospel of Life, 77).