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Will overturning Roe finally allow Catholics to pursue a consistent ethic of life?

The next months and years will be as critical a moment for Catholics as the years after Roe was decided.

Anti-abortion protesters hold signs during a demonstration outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Sunday, May 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

(RNS) — A few months ago I found myself in an interview with a representative from a Catholic organization who made a rhetorical move that has become quite familiar in the current abortion debates. My interviewer drew a comparison between the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision with two earlier historic decisions, Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, the first of which equated enslaved people with property and the second of which enabled segregation.

These comparisons have been a trope in the pro-life community, especially among Catholics, at least since Christopher Wolfe drew the comparison in 1992, but there are older incidences.

Tempting as it is, however, the comparison always has been faulty. It’s based on the idea that slavery, segregation and abortion all deal with human persons denied protection of their rights under law, but in truth Roe doesn’t fit this framing. While Roe scales up protections for unborn children as pregnancy progresses, recognizing a government interest in the right to an unborn person’s life, neither the slave nor the segregated person found a comparable recognition that their rights could be in tension with someone else’s.

There are other rather important differences. For one, a slaveholder’s property claim on another human person is not a true parallel with a woman’s claim to autonomy over her body. 


RELATED: Some Catholic abortion foes are uneasy about overturning Roe


But Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft majority opinion in the forthcoming Dobbs v. Jackson case reveals more fatal failures in this comparison. The Dobbs decision does not safeguard human lives. It takes no position on, as Alito wrote, “when a State should regard pre-natal life as having rights or legally cognizable interests.”

In fact, Dobbs would permit abortion on a state-by-state basis. In this way, Dobbs is more like Plessy (which left segregation up to states) than Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation nationwide.

In other words the Dobbs decision, celebrated with anticipation by the pro-life community today, replicates the very problem with slavery and segregation that the Civil War and the civil rights movement were waged to address. Fundamental rights claims cannot depend on geography. Abortion either is a question about human life that can be compared to slavery and segregation, or it can be right for it to be adjudicated state by state. Both cannot be true. 

The clumsy comparisons with slavery and segregation do have value, however: They reveal something subtly wrong with the pro-life movement (especially among Catholics) that no longer can hide behind the campaign to reverse Roe. The pro-life movement has not principally been about reducing or ending abortion.

Anti-abortion activists march to the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Anti-abortion activists march to the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life in Washington, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Consider the peculiar discourse that has broken out since the Dobbs leak. In his column for Religion News Service, Catholic bioethicist Charles C. Camosy tells us that overturning Roe may cultivate “willingness among those who identify as conservative in the United States to talk about policies like paid family leave, help with child care, an increased minimum wage, more substantial child tax credits and more.”

What has been preventing this willingness for the 50 years since Roe made abortion legal across the country? Why has this encompassing view of human life viability and dignity, which likely makes choosing an abortion seem less necessary, needed to wait until Roe is overturned? We have awaited answers to these questions since long before the Dobbs leak.

In 1983 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin proposed a consistent ethic of life (sometimes called “the seamless garment”) that put abortion in context with all threats to human life, including hunger and poverty. Yet the consistent ethic has never animated most of the conversation among Catholics about the dignity of human life. The most visible leaders of the pro-life movement (usually Catholics) have seemed to want nothing so much as to avoid complicating the abortion issue for Republican candidates from Reagan down to Trump. 

The consistent ethic frustrated the GOP’s attempt to confine the defense of human life to one side of the political aisle. The consistent ethic supports and critiques both liberal and conservative positions. Why else would conservative support for pro-family public policy have to wait so long? A lot needed to be overlooked to keep the focus on winning, and all of it was overlooked for a long time.

Abortion politics has spoken to something more primal than the partisan difference of ideas. It has been about cultural anger. What’s at stake is not abortion but who has control. Dobbs demonstrates that point: Immediately once a fifth vote arrived, Roe had met its end.

For Catholics, the urge for control is understandable. Roe arrived just as Catholics had attained cultural acceptance in the U.S. after generations of Catholic immigrants had endured prejudice and exclusion. In quick succession the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and nascent secularization transformed American social life. Many Catholics no longer recognized the nation in which they had just won acceptance. Opposition to Roe was a vehicle for their broad range of cultural objections.


RELATED: If we’d listened to Cardinal Bernardin, the Catholic Church would not be where it is today


Unfortunately, Roe’s reversal won’t quell the cultural anger. Scorched-earth politics will linger for a long time. The next months and years will be as critical a moment for Catholics as the years after Roe was decided. Anger is not supposed to characterize our relationships with others. The mark of Christianity is love. Pro-life Catholics surely understand themselves to be acting against abortion from love. But love bears different fruits than the ugly and divided politics we have come to know.

No matter how tempting it has been to believe this culture war has been waged as nobly as the struggles against slavery and segregation, abortion is not like those issues and Dobbs is no Brown v. Board of Education. Worse, Dobbs will intensify the divisive cultural argument, not end it. For Catholics the question is whether we will continue to fuel the angry divisions or rethink our relationship to politics and become the healers we are meant to be.

To do that, Catholics will first need to own up to the role we have played in those divisions and abandon our heroic but false narrative of our role in culture wars.

(Steven P. Millies is professor of public theology and director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)