Dr John R. Ling is a freelance writer and speaker on bioethical issues. He spent much of summer 2003 in North America, lecturing on bioethics at Regent College, Vancouver, and then travelling in eastern US from Boston to Miami.
Are the wheels of the US abortion juggernaut about to come off? No, but several of its wheel nuts are currently being loosened. Thirty years after the introduction of legalised abortion in the US the whole enterprise – its ethics and its practice – is being challenged like never before. This is certainly not the end of US abortion, but could it be the beginning of the end? On almost every front – in the courts, the legislature, and the culture – the pro-life mindset is gaining ground.
On 22 January 1973, some five years after the passing of our momentous Abortion Act, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in the case of Roe v. Wade. The outcome was the creation of a new constitutional right – the right of a woman to obtain an abortion. As a consequence of the Roe v. Wade decision, a total of 43,358,592 abortions have been performed in the US between 1973 and 2002, and still one quarter of all US pregnancies ends in abortion.
In 1995, the woman at the centre of this historic case, Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe), found God, left her job at an abortion clinic in Texas, and turned pro-life. Subsequently, she has said that she felt ‘used’ by the pro-choice movement. Then, in June 2003, this same Norma McCorvey tried to get Roe v. Wade overturned. She asked the courts to consider new evidence, which, she maintained, unequivocally shows that over the last thirty years abortion has hurt women, physically and psychologically. Two days later a judge turned down McCorvey’s case because it was not filed within ‘a reasonable time’.
Nevertheless, support for US abortion does seem to be waning. Even the annual number of abortions, which peaked in 1990, and is currently about 1.31 million, is on the decline. A poll in 2001 showed that 48% of US women considered that abortion should be legally prohibited in most cases. A similar poll in 2003 reported that this figure has now risen to 51%. One commentator observed, ‘It shows we are making progress in winning back the hearts and minds of American women. We look forward to the day when Roe v. Wade is … a part of the sad history of our nation.’ Support for abortion is also falling among doctors. A recent survey reported in the ‘Washington Post’ revealed that, ‘The number of physicians performing abortions has dropped to its lowest level in 30 years.’ In fact, in almost 90% of all counties across the US there are no abortion providers. Could it be that the generation that was brought up with abortion is beginning to reject abortion?
Some of this change of heart and mind has undoubtedly been due to the widespread use of ultrasound scans, allowing ‘a window on the womb’. When a woman sees her preborn child she no longer believes the pro-choice propaganda, namely, that, ‘it’s just a piece of tissue’. Crisis pregnancy centres report that up to 95 percent of women who see their babies on ultrasound scans choose not to have an abortion. Even television advertisements have reinforced the truth – one that promotes General Electric’s new 4 D ultrasound technology shows a preborn baby moving to the musical accompaniment of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.
Meanwhile, partial-birth abortions have been banned across the whole country. This new piece of federal legislation has been ‘waiting in the wings’ for eight years, but had been repeatedly vetoed by former President Clinton. Then, on 4 June 2003, the House of Representatives voted 282 v. 139 to prohibit this late-term procedure that critics call ‘barbaric’. One observer stated that, ‘When President Bush signs this bill into law, it will be the most significant blow to the pro-choice, pro-death agenda since the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade 30 years ago.’
And what a difference it makes having a pro-life President. Every year, on 22 January, there is a March for Life rally in Washington to mark the Roe v. Wade decision. This year President George W. Bush spoke live, via a telephone link, to the gathered crowds, ‘In our time, respect for the right to life calls us to defend the sick and the dying, persons with disabilities and birth defects, and all who are weak and vulnerable. And this self-evident truth calls us to value and to protect the lives of innocent children waiting to be born. You and I share a commitment to building a culture of life in America, and we're making progress. As the President, I have signed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act [a new law that requires proper medical care for any infant who survives an abortion], opposed the destruction of embryos for stem cell research, and refused to spend taxpayer money on international programs that promote abortion overseas. My administration is challenging the Oregon law that permits physician-assisted suicide. We support abstinence education, and crisis pregnancy programs, and parental notification laws. We offer compassionate alternatives to abortion by promoting adoption and extending state health care coverage for unborn children.’ ‘For 30 years, the March for Life has been sustained by constant prayer and abiding hope, that one day, every child will be born into a family that loves that child and a nation that protects that child. And when that day arrives, you will have the gratitude of millions – especially those who know the gift of life because you cared and you kept faith. May God bless you all and may God continue to bless America.’
And President Bush has a further grand opportunity to show his pro-life colours. In the coming months there will be at least one, and perhaps two, vacancies in the Supreme Court due to the retirement of aged judges. The present incumbents of the Supreme Court are delicately balanced on the abortion issue. If President Bush appoints one pro-life judge, Roe v. Wade will immediately be under threat. The abortionists are certainly worried. According to the legal director of Pro-Choice America, ‘Roe is in grave peril. A switch in one vote [on the Supreme Court] could ban some abortion procedures and possibly ban second-trimester abortions. With a switch in two justices, Roe could be overturned entirely.’ After three decades, Roe v. Wade is beginning to look vulnerable.
Alongside these challenges to the monolithic Roe v. Wade, which applies across all the American states, there has been a recent raft of increasingly pro-life laws enacted within individual states. Though these do not outlaw abortion provision as such, they are certainly rattling the gates of the pro-choice camp. So far fifteen US states have passed laws that protect children in the womb from violence. These laws are, in effect, conferring legal status on the unborn. For example, from 1 September 2003, Texas has legally defined an 'individual' to include an unborn child from the moment of fertilisation, rather than the previous definition of 'a human being who has been born and is alive'.
So while thirty years of abortion has become a shameful legacy for America to bear, those who are opposing this culture of death have several reasons to see some light at the end of the tunnel. But there is still a long, long way to go.
According to Chuck Colson, the influential Christian commentator, ‘The best way to pursue our case is not just being anti-abortion. We must be truly pro-life. The compassion and generosity displayed by pro-life people demonstrate both the superiority of the pro-life worldview and the impoverishment of "choice". Helping our neighbours to understand the issues by our words and demonstrating our love by compassionate care is the way we will build a public consensus that will reject the culture of death. It's the way, with God's help, Roe v. Wade will go from being vulnerable to extinct.’
For us in the UK, all this is nothing but good news. Sure, abortion has always been a more politicised issue in the US. Sure, US culture has a stronger religious base. Sure, we do things differently. But, if the US colossus of Roe v. Wade continues to be contested and undermined, then our 1967 Act will also be exposed and its supporters severely shaken. Let us too work to loosen some of the wheel nuts on the juggernaut of UK abortion – pass me that spanner!