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Optimism and uncertainty for the prolife movement in 2020

The ability of the grassroots prolife movement to touch minds and hearts—not just of politicians and judges but of ordinary Americans—will soon be tested as perhaps never before.

March for Life participants and counter-protesters hold signs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, in 2018. (CNS photo/Peter Lockley)

As thousands of prolife demonstrators fill the streets of downtown Washington on January 24 for the annual March for Life, optimism and uncertainty will both be present in abundance. Forty-seven years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion and 28 years after it ruled against placing what it called an “undue burden” upon women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, the prolife movement has reason for being both hopeful and concerned .

On the plus side, the number of U.S. abortions continues to drop, falling to 862,000 in 2017. This is still a shockingly high number, but it is half a million fewer than the 1.36 million 20 years earlier—and the figure has declined steadily throughout those two decades. Meanwhile, abortion clinics continue to close their doors as many states enact new, restrictive laws on abortion.

Things are looking up, too, at the Supreme Court, which at last has what appears to be a five-member majority of prolife members—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Firmly on the abortion side is a four-member minority composed of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, current darling of the liberal media, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

But just how solid is the majority? The answer to that all-important question should become clear in the months immediately ahead. And there the uncertainty sets in.

On March 4 the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Gee, a case testing a Louisiana law that requires clinic doctors who do abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. (June Medical Services is an abortion provider, joined in the case by two anonymous doctors who perform abortions, while Gee is Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the state’s health and hospitals department.)

As the media never tire of pointing out, the Louisiana law is virtually identical to a Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down in 2016. In upholding Louisiana’s version, however, the U.S Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit discerned “stark differences” between the factual records in the two cases. The appeals court also spoke approvingly of the “credentialing” function served by requiring hospital admitting privileges and thereby helping to ensure that women receive medical competent care.

The Supreme Court is likely to hand down its decision in the case next June, thereby helping to thrust abortion squarely into presidential race, with President Trump taking the prolife side and the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she may be, firmly pro-choice.

Note, though, that at this point in the history of the abortion debate there is little or no chance that the Supreme Court will flatly overturn its existing precedents, and attempts to force it to do that by passing laws certain to be struck down arguably do more harm than good by reinforcing the precedents. Instead—and at most—the court will strengthen the authority of the states to impose some restrictions on abortion. This in turn will lead to fresh political struggles in many places, very likely punctuated by recurring appeals to the Supreme Court.

And here the real significance of this year’s March for Life becomes apparent. For if, as seems likely though far from certain abortion is on its way to becoming a question that each state will have to answer for itself, the ability of the grassroots prolife movement to touch minds and hearts—not just of politicians and judges but of ordinary Americans—will soon be tested as perhaps never before.


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About Russell Shaw 210 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

10 Comments

  1. “Note, though, that at this point in the history of the abortion debate there is little or no chance that the Supreme Court will flatly overturn its existing precedents, and attempts to force it to do that by passing laws certain to be struck down arguably do more harm than good by reinforcing the precedents. Instead—and at most—the court will strengthen the authority of the states to impose some restrictions on abortion. This in turn will lead to fresh political struggles in many places, very likely punctuated by recurring appeals to the Supreme Court.”

    Until, perhaps, the tension between the states and the central government finally comes to a head.

    • Should the Supreme Court abandon its previous finding of “emanations of penumbras” (penumbras are shadows, shadows don’t emanate anything–duh) the most likely result will be that the issue will be kicked over to the states.

      The pro-aborts have anticipated that for some time now and are already busy extending the reach of state laws that legalize the undefendable.

  2. But For 3 Votes…

    I search for the heart of the matter,
    As my heart continues to shatter.
    How can it be,
    That but for three,
    Sixty million hearts would beat.
    Instead, our nation in total retreat.
    7-2 was the score,
    The Prince of Darkness shut the door.
    Three votes the other way,
    Millions of children would be alive today.
    America’s character totally polluted,
    Two thousand babies a day executed.
    No judge, jury, or trial,
    What possibly could be more vile?
    Broken in two America needs to be,
    The country at the foot of the tree.
    JESUS, I see a tear in Your eye,
    I look at the carnage and wonder why?
    Help pro lifers stand and risk being hated,
    The silent holocaust must be abated.

  3. Death Roe
    A young child has not a clue,
    That its life is about to be through.
    In what should be the safest place,
    Their life about to be erased.
    Hundreds of thousands every year,
    Will have stolen what we hold dear.
    Convicted of living in a womb,
    Now transformed into their tomb.
    America arrogantly lives a lie,
    Sentencing innocent children to die.
    The executioner has no burden of proof,
    Has no interest in hearing the truth.
    Our country is upside down,
    Abortion rampant in every town.
    A little heart beats at 24 days,
    Don’t expect any execution stays.
    Arm and legs torn apart,
    Forever silencing a broken heart.
    Another life about to fade,
    In innocent blood his feet Wade.
    Millions of coffins in a Roe,
    The winds of change starting to blow.

    • When Justice Kavanaugh was being deposed by the congress for a seat on the Supreme Court he specifically stated “abortion is “settled law”. He surely is not a socialist/Democrat and your blanket vitriol blatantly saying them against us is exactly the type of rhetoric that seeks to divide us!

  4. Apparently, I am to be the lone voice in the wilderness, but it is impossible from a moral or Constitutional perspective for abortion to be “legalized.” The Supreme Court is not a law-making body-it decides cases-and because abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution (which only applies to the federal government) it is a state issue (by the 10th Amendment) and can’t be reviewed or “struck down” by the Supreme Court on Constitutional grounds. Furthermore, of course there can be no just “law” passed (by any government) which allows the direct killing of an innocent human life. The right to life is an inalienable natural right. Any “law” which allows the abridgment of this natural right violates the natural law and therefore is unjust.

    Roe vs. Wade was a piece of legal sophistry, and was an evil, unjust, and false judgment. That it has passed muster as a perfectly valid decision (which somehow has “legalized” abortion by “striking down” state laws against abortion) in the public square exposes the general ignorance of the population and the tacit complicity of those who should know better and either do not know, are silent when they shouldn’t be (or their voices are being excluded by the mainstream media), or secretly support the wickedness.

  5. As we walk through this dark period the Catholic voice of clarity on abortion has not been very clear. The innocent heart in the safest must be the mother’s womb. However, the clerical message seems to “outlaw” any and all abortions, including private clinical decisions by the mother, her physician and her God. Realistically, the only way to extinguish all abortion is not to attack the mother, rather advocate for the unborn by addressing the source… the medical professions who perform frivolous, cosmetic and convenient abortions. Shifting abortion restrictions to each state only creates a patchwork result which should be seamless and nationwide. I believe that many Pro-choice Catholics align with this position. Staining a person’s reputation by “broad brushing” them as Pro-choice.

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