Supreme Court Out of Touch with the Mainstream on Abortion

By Deirdre A. McQuade

January 25, 2008

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court said in Roe v. Wade that abortion cannot be prohibited before viability for any reason – or after viability, if performed for reasons of maternal health. The same day, Roe's less famous companion case Doe v. Bolton defined "health" as "all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age – relevant to the well-being of the patient." Together, Roe and Doe created a right to abortion for virtually any reason, through all nine months of pregnancy.

It is that policy, not support for life, which is a "fringe" position. A June 2007 poll by the New York Times, CBS News and MTV found that 62% of young adults disagree with abortion on demand – and this mirrors the views of all adults.

In October, a CBS poll asked Americans about their "personal feeling" on abortion. Two out of three supported greater restrictions on abortion (with 50 percent saying it should be permitted only in cases such as rape, incest, or to save the mother's life). A mere 26 percent said it "should be permitted in all cases" – the current state of law under Roe. In short, Americans (most notably young Americans) do not accept what Roe v. Wade created.

The Supreme Court may finally be starting to see just how far out of the mainstream it has been on abortion. Gonzales v. Carhart, issued last April, upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. Though narrow in its short-term impact, there are several heartening developments that bode well for future efforts to protect human life in law.

Since Roe v. Wade, the Court has bloodlessly described "choice," "procedures" and "potential life." Gonzales v. Carhart sets aside these evasions about not knowing "when human life begins." The majority now acknowledges that, "by common understanding and scientific terminology, a fetus is a living organism while within the womb, whether or not it is viable outside the womb." The Court now calls the victim of abortion an unborn child, and clearly recognizes abortion as a form of killing.

Remarkably, the Court has also recognized that women can suffer following abortion, citing the grief, sorrow and depression reported by 180 women who filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case.

We have reason to hope the Supreme Court has begun to take off its blinders regarding abortion, recognizing its harm to children, women, the medical profession, and all of society. While advocates for the sanctity of human life should be encouraged by this clearer vision, we must not rest until Roe v. Wade is a distant memory, our laws protect human life from conception to natural death, parents welcome both planned and unplanned children, and the intergenerational wounds of abortion have begun to heal.

For more information on Roe v. Wade, visit

A longer and modified version of this column appeared in the Washington Times on January 22, 2008, the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Deirdre A. McQuade is Assistant Director of Policy & Communications, Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.