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Pulse
1 August 2022

On 24 June 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 5-4 decision, overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling of 1973 that established the constitutional right to abortion.

This means that individual states are able to once again ban this procedure. According to a BBC report,

Half of the states in the US are expected to introduce new restrictions or bans. Thirteen have already passed so-called trigger laws that will automatically outlaw abortion following the Supreme Court ruling. A number of other are likely to pass new restrictions quickly.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion which led to the overturning of Roe, thereby upending five decades of precedence in the U.S. He states that:

The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely – the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

He adds:

That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply noted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.’

‘It is time to heed the Constitution,’ he asserts, ‘and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.’

Four other conservatives in the high court concurred with Alito’s judgement. However, it is pertinent to note that three of the justices were appointed by former President Donald Trump: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Not unexpectedly, the overturning of Roe saw a very mixed reception in the United States, as it sets off waves of triumph and of despair across the nation. As Kate Zernike of The New York Times observed: ‘The split-screen reaction reflected a polarised nation: jubilation and relief on one side, outrage and grief on the other.’

According to her report, Dale Bartscher, the director of South Dakota Right to Life, said: ‘If I had confetti, I would be tossing it high. Today, we’re celebrating a day that we’ve long dreamed of, advocated for and worked toward the overturning of Roe v. Wade.’

The Court’s liberal justices, however, were appalled by the ruling. In their joint dissent, they wrote: ‘The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.’

But the greatest outrage to the ruling of the Supreme Court was expressed by none other than the President of the United States himself. In a speech made on the same day that the ruling was announced, President Biden – who is Roman Catholic – said:

Today is a – it’s not hyperbole to suggest a very solemn moment. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away the constitutional right from the American people that it has already recognised.

They didn’t limit it. They simply took it away. That’s never been done to a right so important to so many Americans.

The President goes on to assert: ‘Now, with Roe gone, let’s be very clear: The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk.’ He presents the overturn of Roe as the ‘culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law.’

And he regards this as the triumph of an ‘extreme ideology’: ‘It’s a realisation of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court, in my view.’

He ended his speech thus: ‘And you with your vote, you can act. You can have the final word. This is not over.’ The President’s liberal commitments cannot be clearer!

An entire article can be devoted to analysing President Biden’s speech from the standpoint of Christian ethics, especially the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and the great encyclicals of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But my purpose here is simply to present the ‘split-screen’ view, and show just how polarising this issue will continue to be.

RESPONSES BY CHRISTIANS

 Regrettably, Christians are equally divided in their response to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe. As PBS News Hour reports, ‘reactions from faith leaders ranged from elation to anger’ when news broke that Roe v Wade was overturned.

Some Christians saw the ruling as a truly significant triumph for pro-lifers who have worked so hard and for so long to see this day. However, they added that although this is a major breakthrough, the work to protect the lives of the unborn must continue.

This sentiment is articulated in a statement issued by Brent Leatherwood, the acting president of the Southern Baptist Church’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. ‘The release of the Dobbs decision marks a true turning point in the pro-life movement, a moment that Christians, advocates and many others have worked toward tirelessly for 50 years …’

It adds:

As this chapter comes to a close, we must understand this is not the end of our important work. The issue of abortion has now been turned over to the states, many of which have either implemented or are considering some of the most abhorrently permissive pro-abortion proposals ever.

This view, however, is not shared by the ministers of the United Church of Christ, who in a joint statement warned that the decision will ‘endanger the lives and well-being of birthing people who do not choose to continue pregnancy.’

The statement ends with the rather spurious and misleading remark: ‘God loves and cares for people who have abortions, and so does the United Church of Christ’ – obliquely implying that the supporters of the ruling don’t.

Even the leaders of the Catholic Church, whose teaching on abortion and the sanctity of human life has been consistently and clearly articulated in numerous documents across the centuries, are divided in their response to the ruling.

For example, in a joint statement, Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities declare that ‘This is a historic day in the life of our country, one that stirs our thoughts, emotions and prayers.’

They describe Roe v Wade as an ‘unjust law that has permitted some to decide whether others can live or die’, a policy which has ‘resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of preborn children …’

However, John Gehring, the Catholic programme director at the Washington-based network Faith in Public Life, said via Twitter that:

Catholics on the right spent decades reducing church teaching to a single issue and linked arms with a conservative movement that is hostile to the church’s teachings about a consistent ethic of life and the common good. This ruling is the culmination of that misguided campaign.

DEFENDING LIFE

There can be no doubt that the High Court ruling on Roe v Wade will save many lives that would otherwise be lost through elective abortion. And at the same time ruling has inflicted a blow on what Pope John Paul II has called the ‘culture of death’ in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life):

We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We find ourselves not only faced with but necessarily in the midst of this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.

On the issue of abortion, the Pope writes:

The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognise that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined.

The Pope’s teaching on abortion – that it is murder (Exodus 20:13) – is in harmony with the Church’s position throughout its history. From earliest times, the Church has sharply distinguished itself from the pagan cultures by rejecting and condemning abortions and infanticides.

We find evidence of this in early Christian documents such as the Didache (50-70), and The Epistle of Barnabas (70-132). The unequivocal rejection of the practice of abortion is also found in the writings of Augustine in the fifth century, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth.

The magisterial Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century such as Martin Luther and John Calvin similarly condemned abortion. Luther describes abortion as stemming from the ‘wickedness of human nature.’ And Calvin argues that since the unborn child in the mother’s womb ‘is already a human being,’ ‘it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life …’

Christians today who are swayed by the writings of philosophers such as Judith Jarvis Thomson, David Boonin and Eileen McDonagh which argue that women have the right to end their pregnancies on the basis of personal autonomy and bodily rights must drink once again from the deep well of Scripture and tradition.

They must take heed of its wisdom if they are not be unwitting advocates of the ‘culture of death’ by championing murder in the name of personal autonomy and rights.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.