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Good News, Bad News

[World, February 26, 1994] 

Good news on the pro-life front recently: both Pennsylvania and North Dakota have overcome judicial hurdles to putting abortion laws into effect. Pro-life victories are rare enough that activists are celebrating.

The Pennsylvania laws were enacted in 1990, but abortion advocates brought repeated challenges that carried them all the way to the Supreme Court. When the Casey decision was handed down in June 1992, the Court had rejected only the provision that husbands be told about their wives’ abortions. Requirements that a parent consent to a minor’s abortion, and that every abortion customer be counseled about alternatives, then wait 24 hours before the procedure, were all upheld.

But Pennsylvania’s abortion defenders didn’t give in. The law continued to be held up with challenges for another year and a half. Only in the last couple of weeks were the final objections cleared away, so that the laws will at long last be enforced.

North Dakota’s law concerned a 24-hour waiting period, enacted in 1991. Geography was the issue here: the state has only one abortion clinic, in Fargo. If the woman had to travel to the clinic for a visit, then wait 24 hours before her abortion, it created a difficulty that abortion defenders called unconstitutional. The federal court approved this law with the provision that the 24 hours could begin with the woman’s phone call to the clinic.

This is good news, right? After twenty years of working to save the lives of unborn babies, we’ve won the ability to demand that women phone the abortion clinic before they go in for their appointment? Did we really think a woman on the Canada border was going to hop in her car and drive down for an impromptu abortion without phoning first? Have we actually saved any babies’ lives here?

So maybe the news isn’t all good. It’s sobering to realize that, in today’s political climate, the best pro-lifers can hope for are laws creating tinker-toy barriers that are easily knocked aside. Laws that would actually save children are specifically excluded: that same Casey decision said that no state could put an "undue burden" on a woman’s access to abortion. That was why they said her husband could not even be informed about her decision; he might try to stop her. No one on earth can interfere with the death of her baby. If parents refuse their daughter permission, she can get it instead from a judge. The waiting period/counseling provision is one last, noble attempt to persuade her to choose life—but if she decides to ignore it, nothing can be done.

There’s more bad news. These barrier laws can actually make abortion seem more acceptable, more tolerable, by lending the illusion that it’s reasonably restricted. Think about liquor laws; in most states there are restrictions such as no sales on Sunday, sales only from specially-licensed stores, and strict age limits. These laws don’t actually prevent any adult from buying as much booze as they want, as long as they’re bright enough to figure out what hours the place is open. These laws may not do much to prevent adult drunk-driving deaths and cirrhosis of the liver (although they probably do protect some teens). But the primary thing these laws do is give us the impression that alcohol is under control—simultaneously frowned on and indulged. Abortion-regulating laws can have the same effect, reinforcing an impression that its a necessary evil, surrounded by conscience-soothing minimum requirements that don’t significantly hinder business.

When the laws vary from state to state the effect is further blunted. To continue the analogy, when I was growing up in Charleston, SC liquor was sold only in stores that were not even allowed to have a sign; their only identification was a large red dot painted on the building. (Natives still speak of running down to "the red dot store.") In New Orleans, on the other hand, there is a liquor aisle in the supermarket, and a grocery chain might sell bourbon and gin under its own label.

A Pennsylvania teen may need her mom’s or a judge’s permission to have an abortion, but if she can get a ride over the border to Maryland she’ll find things more lenient. Maryland law says the abortionist alone decides whether to notify her parents; if he thinks she’s mature enough, or that notification is not in her "best interest," her parents never have to know. The law even forbids parents from bringing a civil suit against the abortionist for his decision not to inform them.

Laws placing minimal, marginal regulations around abortion are still better than nothing. I would rather have weak parental-involvement laws than none at all, and I’m grateful to the hardworking pro-lifers who have battled against steep odds to win them. Even if we can’t have everything, we have to go on working for whatever we can get.

But let’s not mistake a scrawny lonesome pine for the forest. Our goal is actually protecting unborn life, and laws that will do that are still a thought-revolution away. We won’t be able to pass or sustain such laws until a majority of the American people wants them, yet we seem presently to be moving instead toward an eerie, illogical compromise. Polls for the last few years show that most people agree with us that abortion kills babies—but they nevertheless want it to be legal. They don’t like it much, but they think we can’t live without it.

Turning that around will take work on every front: bold teaching in the churches, improved routes to adoption, effective help in pregnancy care centers, promotion of chastity. We can save many babies this way, even while abortion is legal. Minimal abortion restrictions may have the unfortunate side-effect of teaching America that we can comfortably live with abortion. Pro-life work will have to prove that the reverse is true, and make that vision appealing, clear, and practical: it’s possible for us to live—all of us—without it.

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