Planning for our post-Roe world

Everyone in the pro-life movement sees this as a moment for doing something new.

Anti-abortion activists gather Jan. 20, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington during the first March for Life since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the decision that created a legal right to an abortion in the United States. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — The end of January, when the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling falls, has historically been a time when both sides ramped up their us-versus-them fight to the death, with one side defending Roe as a crucial foundation for women’s rights and the other arguing its fundamental injustice for vulnerable prenatal children.

This January had a completely different feel. With Roe gone, attention turned to speculation about — and planning for — the Dobbs era. I was fortunate enough to be part of two events explicitly about this: one at Notre Dame and one at Harvard.

At Notre Dame the McGrath Institute for Church Life held a distinctly pro-life event called “A Culture of Life in Post-Dobbs America,” geared toward thinking about how to respond to the new moment. I was on a panel with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese; Notre Dame Law School’s O. Carter Snead; Danielle Brown, associate director of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Angela Franks, professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.

The dynamic conversation, without punting on the priority of the abortion issue, also examined abortion in the context of racism, contraception and metaphysical notions of what it means to be free. It’s important to recognize that the abortion discourse, whether we like it or not, is bound up in a host of other issues.

The conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute was different, but just as hopeful. Though it certainly had a pro-choice energy, its organizers courageously welcomed pro-life voices such as legal scholar Erika Bachiochi, who directs the Wollstonecraft Project at the Abigail Adams Institute; historian Daniel K. Williams; and Notre Dame law professor Sherif Girgis.

Given the kind of abortion orthodoxy present at a place like Harvard, pulling this off was no small feat. And the courage of the planners was rewarded: It was totally clear after that conference that pro-lifers who want to work with our perceived opponents when it comes to abortion demand have wide areas where we can cooperate, particularly when it comes to attacking structural poverty, intimate partner violence and capitalism’s pernicious effect on family structures.

Both events showed that nearly everyone in the pro-life movement sees this as a moment for doing something new.

The pro-life movement has always made women a priority, and the charge that we only care about people before they are born is totally absurd. It must be acknowledged, however, that since the 1980s those who have held power in the pro-life movement have been led by far-too-tight connections to the post-Reagan Republican Party, which habitually rejects the role of government in favor of private-sector solutions.

O. Carter Snead, from left, Danielle Brown and Charles Camosy participate in a panel titled "A Culture of Life in Post-Dobbs America," moderated by Jessica Keating Floyd, right, at the University of Notre Dame on Jan. 25, 2023. Video screen grab

O. Carter Snead, from left, Danielle Brown and Charles Camosy participate in a panel titled “A Culture of Life in Post-Dobbs America,” moderated by Jessica Keating Floyd, right, at the University of Notre Dame on Jan. 25, 2023. Video screen grab

There is nothing Catholic or pro-life about this small-government approach. There’s nothing about this approach that serves babies and their mothers. We need to make prudential judgments about unintended consequences of government policies to make sure they don’t do more harm than good. But the pro-life movements must fully divest from any sort of a priori ideological commitment to the libertarian strain of the GOP. We need an “all of the above” approach.

Doubters who think pro-life and Reaganism are inseparable should keep in mind the 2017 budget debate in Congress, when then-House Speaker Paul Ryan invoked the Reaganite aversion to “picking winners and losers” — i.e., influence behavior via the tax code — to justify getting rid of the adoption tax credit, a measure that helped parents choose an alternative to abortion. Pro-lifers went to war and defeated that terrible libertarian approach

In the coming years of the Dobbs era, we must get used to exercising these muscles more often.

Happily, there is good reason to think that will happen. I’ve written in this space about the arrival of “Pro-Life 3.0,” with Pro-Life 1.0 coming before and just after Roe and Pro-Life 2.0 coming in the 1980s with the Reaganite fusionism of libertarians, neocons and the religious right.

Skeptical? Pessimistic? Or at least not all that excited? I get it. But notice that, as the move from 1.0 to 2.0 showed, the pro-life movement has already proved it can change very dramatically. Pro-Life 1.0 included, for instance, many progressive anti-Vietnam War activists who opposed killing in both contexts. And many pro-life leaders are moving in this new direction already.

Indeed, I recently helped a group of pro-lifers draft a statement along these lines, signed by everyone from Live Action’s Lila Rose to Pro-Life Action League’s Eric Scheidler to Christianity Today’s Russell Moore. The trend it portended was so unusual that it was covered by The New York Times.

Finally, Pro-Life 3.0 is strongly supported by public opinion. One of the more astonishing findings of the recent Marist poll (commissioned semiannually by the Knights of Columbus) is specifically about the following question: “Is it possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn?”

Back in June a whopping 80% said, “Yes.” In January, it was 90%. 

What else do 90% of Americans agree on? The list is, at the very least, incredibly small. There is every reason to hope and even expect that pro-lifers will intentionally move with confidence into a Pro-Life 3.0 future focused on radical equality for both mother and child.

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