This week, Monday, January 22, will mark forty-five years since the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling stripped away the laws of individual states that limited abortion. I am better than a dozen years older than that, so throughout what I call “my conscious life” I’ve lived in a nation that has (as I understand it) the least restrictive laws in the world about ending a pregnancy.
It remains a puzzle to me. I picture in my imagination one infant that has just been born, and another infant just one day from birth. The only difference between the two objectively is where it gets its oxygen and where it gets its nutrition. Yet our legal system makes an essential and fundamental distinction between the two. We even call them by different names: the first is an infant, the second a fetus. Legally a new baby just born has all the rights of citizenship, while the other person, whose mailing address is still within his or her mother, has no rights at all.
We have all heard of cases when, through the wonders of science, a soon-to-be-born child is diagnosed with some major medical challenge … a faulty heart valve, a cyst on the brain … and doting parents and an alert medical staff make heroic efforts to repair the damage and bring the child to birth. On the other hand, we may find ourselves pregnant in an inconvenient way, and so can only see this absolutely new blend of possibility as a problem to be eliminated. It seems we have entrusted to ourselves, in some situation, the complete freedom to declare another a non-being. That strikes me as a troubling proposition.
Overall though, I must tell you I am rather confident about the future of the cause of unborn life in our society. I’ve been made so by my time with university students. Our children and grandchildren can often puzzle us with their choices … but in my twenty-one years working as a campus pastor it became apparent to me that more and more young people are as puzzled as I am by how someone’s “choice” can make all the difference between a soon-to-be-born infant being on one hand a gift of incalculable worth and on the other a non-being. You can see this, I believe, as well in younger peoples’ concern about animal pain and the greater environment. It’s all of a piece, and overall young people are more and more sensitive to the value of life.
Slaves were once considered to be someone else’s property. They had no rights, no innate value of their own (well, apart from what money their future labor could fetch their “masters” in a sale). It took a long, long time to change a way of thinking that eventually led to our country finally outlawing the buying and selling of another human being, but it happened. The same, I believe, will take place in time over the matter of abortion. The words of 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker are wise and apropos: “The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it tends toward justice.”