“Liberty and Justice for All”: Roe v. Wade’s Betrayal

Robert P. George on Roe’s cultural and legal legacy, 40 years and 50 million lives later

Robert P. George, 57, a Roman Catholic and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, has long been a respected intellectual and defender of natural law. He served on the drafting committee of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which defended the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty, and was signed by more than 150 prominent Christian leaders. He has been outspoken in defense of the unborn and traditional marriage, and has influenced many well-known political leaders. The New York Times has dubbed him “the reigning brain of the Christian right”; Archbishop of Newark John Myers describes him as “the pre-eminent Catholic intellectual.”

In a recent interview with CWR, he shared his thoughts on the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down the nation’s abortion laws. The 40th anniversary of the decision is January 22, 2013.

Robert P. George (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

CWR: As we mark the 40th anniversary of Roe, what is your opinion of the decision and how firmly entrenched is it in the legal community’s thinking?

George: Roe has never been accepted by the American people as a whole as a valid constitutional decision. It is widely regarded, even among liberal academics, as poorly reasoned—at best. Many scholars and others (including more than a few who are not pro-life in their moral and political convictions) regard it as a glaring (and even embarrassing) example of the judicial usurpation of authority left by the Constitution in the hands of the people and their elected representatives. Even Roe’s diehard supporters tend to defend it on the grounds that it is an “established precedent,” not on the grounds that it is correct as a matter of constitutional interpretation.

CWR: Do you think there is a possibility of overturning Roe and sending the abortion issue back to the states?

George: Yes, but it will entirely depend on the election of a Republican president in 2016. President Obama’s appointees, present and future, will vote to uphold Roe. They will not have very good arguments for doing so, but they will do it. I believe that currently four justices on the Supreme Court would overturn Roe if given the opportunity. If none of these justices retires or dies during the second Obama term, and if the next president is a Republican who nominates a faithful constitutionalist judge to replace one of the current pro-Roe justices, then Roe would finally go the way of Plessy v. Ferguson [the 1896 US Supreme Court decision that upheld state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities; it established the so-called “separate but equal” principle] and other shameful decisions that blot the Supreme Court’s historical record. 

CWR: In the years since you began publicly supporting the pro-life cause, how has the debate over abortion changed?

George: People, including abortion’s supporters, have been forced to confront the truth about the humanity of the child in the womb. It is simply no longer possible to pretend not to know “when life begins” or whether abortion takes the life of a human being. The facts of human embryogenesis and early intrauterine development are not only clear, but reasonably well known. And sonography has given all of us a window into the beautiful life of the child in the womb. That, I believe, is why a majority of Americans now identify themselves as pro-life—for the first time since Roe v. Wade was handed down.

CWR: Do you see more support now for the pro-life position among your students? Your colleagues? People involved in politics?

George: Yes, the pro-life cause has greater support now among all age groups, especially younger people. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of professors cling to the “old-time religion” of a “right to abortion,” but academics these days are so deeply committed to social liberalism that I’m afraid they will be among the last to see the light. We need to keep working on them, though! They claim to be committed to science, evidence, and reason. Let’s hold them to those commitments.  

Among politicians, the most important development regarding abortion in the past few decades has been partisan polarization. When Roe was handed down, there were many pro-life Democrats and more than a few Republicans who favored legal abortion. Today, pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct. The party is a pro-abortion party from top to bottom. There are still some Republicans who regard themselves as “pro-choice,” but they are nothing like the force in their party they used to be, and it is doubtful that someone who did not oppose abortions in most cases could be selected as the Republican nominee for president or vice president.

CWR: How does your Catholic faith motivate you in speaking out on behalf of the unborn?

George: I am Catholic. Of course, one needn’t be a Catholic or Christian of any kind or even a religious believer to understand that abortion is a grave injustice and a violation of human rights. Still, I’m proud that the Church has been, from the beginning of the debate about abortion, outspoken in its proclamation of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family, beginning with the precious child in the womb. The Catholic bishops in particular deserve commendation for their strong and consistent pro-life witness. They deserve commendation, too, for their willingness to join hands and work together with our brothers and sisters of other traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical Protestants, traditional Anglicans, LDS, Orthodox Jews) in the cause of the unborn child.

For those of us who are believing Christians and Jews, there is a special reason to respect the life and dignity of every human being, for we believe that each one is a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of God. Each is of inestimable worth. None is inherently superior or inferior to any other. All must be, in the words of my late and very great friend Father Richard John Neuhaus, “protected by law and welcomed in life.”

CWR: If I were to go out publicly and defend the pro-life position, how would you advise me to present the issue?

George: The pro-life position should be presented as exactly what it is: a matter of justice and fundamental human rights. Religions, such as Catholicism, rightly teach that abortion is a grave moral evil, but the question is not fundamentally a matter of religious doctrine. Like slavery, it is a matter of natural justice. The governing principle of political morality is the principle of the equal protection of the laws. To uphold that principle and insist on it in our political practice is not to “impose religious dogma,” it is to fulfill our basic moral obligations as a society dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.

For a political order to withdraw the law’s protections from any class of human beings for any reason (race, sex, ethnicity, age, size, stage of development, condition of dependency, or whatever) is to commit a grave injustice against them. That’s what Roe v. Wade did. For us, as Americans, Roe is not just bad constitutional law, it is a betrayal of a hard-won constitutional principle. That is why Roe must be overturned and why we must fight in the domain of politics, and not merely in the domain of culture (though there, too), for the protection of unborn members of the human family.

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About Jim Graves 225 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.