Dobbs Redux: Naming What’s Really at Stake

COMMENTARY: It’s no coincidence that in the year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the response from abortion advocates has gotten uglier. The pro-life response must now focus on fundamentals.

Pro-life advocates celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 24, 2022, following the court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years.
Pro-life advocates celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 24, 2022, following the court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years. (photo: Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in June 2022, advocates of legal abortion have been frantically active, not only proposing to reestablish a legal right to abortion, but seeking to quash even the smallest legal gesture toward respecting unborn human lives. 

Pro-life advocates, too, are active at both the state and the federal levels. They are meeting with much success in some legislatures and courts, but also facing unexpected animosity and lack of will on the part of lawmakers who previously could hide behind Supreme Court opinions that forbade them from showing “undue” respect for unborn children. 

As usual, abortion advocates contend that the territory at stake in this inevitable tug-of-war is women’s agency, and that this agency is in a zero-sum struggle, with the “rights” of an entity they inevitably fail to acknowledge is both human and alive. 

While pro-life advocates advance a genuinely creative array of legal means to protect unborn lives as much as their relevant electorates will allow, I propose one alteration in our strategy going forward. We need to remind everyone what territory is really at stake, which is Americans’ willingness to acknowledge that we humans are responsible for one another, especially for those who can’t help themselves. 

We need to remind everyone that to be human is to be in relationships of mutual dependence. We need to remind onlookers, in other words, that pro-choice is anti-reality, with all of its nonsensical talk of “autonomy.” 

The pro-life movement, instead, not only accepts reality, but exhorts us to see that our real freedom lies in embracing it. 

Even casual observers of the last year’s abortion wars must have noticed that abortion advocates’ demands are getting uglier and uglier. Satan worshippers have filed suit claiming a religious-freedom-based right to abort. States are trying to force all health-insurance plans to cover abortion and denying the rights of medical personnel to conscientious objections. Abortion advocates are seeking to defeat laws requiring the decent burial of aborted human bodies and allowing abortion-pill reversal services for women who change their minds. 

There are myriad attacks on centers designed to help women who decide to give birth under difficult personal circumstances and a resurgence of groups with guerilla-style names like “Jane’s Revenge.”

This anger, this “by-any-means-necessary” campaign to dehumanize unborn children and their advocates is not only about abortion.

 It’s not even only about politics, at a time when politics has become so barbed and zero-sum. 

Instead, it’s nothing less than a demand to embrace a genuinely disturbing culture and anthropology — “culture” referring to what we worship in fact and “anthropology” meaning a particular view of the human person. 

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVI put his finger on this. He said it best in his book Truth and Tolerance. There, he calls the move to valorize legal abortion, in actuality, a crisis in human understanding about freedom, which has been narrowed to individual rights. 

He explains that legal abortion has come to represent the claim that women should possess complete control over themselves, free of any “external” binding norms. 

Yet abortion, he said, actually helps to clarify the problem of human freedom and points to the interdependence of all humanity. 

In any pregnancy, he writes, “the being of another person is so closely interwoven with the being of this first person, the mother, that for the moment it can only exist at all in bodily association with the mother ... which nonetheless does not abolish its otherness.” 

The coexistence continues after the child is born, although the form changes, Benedict said, because he is “just as dependent, just as much in need of someone being there for it.” The child’s state of dependency means that the mother has to acknowledge the “limits” of her freedom, “or rather the living of [her] freedom, not in competition, but in mutual support.” 

It is precisely this experience of limiting one’s freedom for the sake of another that has become so foreign in our current culture and anthropology, not only for women in unwanted pregnancy but for far too many adults. 

Benedict’s point is that children aren’t the only ones in a state of dependency. Rather, “the child in its mother’s womb just makes us most vividly aware of the nature of human existence as a whole: It is also true of the adult that he can exist only with the other person and from him and is thus forever dependent.” 

Ironically, in our age of entitlement, there’s an inherent contradiction. Benedict states it well, “Man presumes completely of his own accord that others will be there for him … yet for his own part he would prefer not to be included in the constraint of such a ‘from’ and ‘for’ others; rather, he would prefer to become entirely independent.” 

Pope Benedict seemed to clearly see what was coming and what has been lost. Today, he wrote, “this radical demand for freedom … is largely determinative of general consciousness” that “wishes to be neither ‘coming from’ nor ‘going toward’ … to exist neither from nor for another, but just to be completely free. That is to say, it regards the real basic shape of human existence itself as an attack on freedom that is prior to every individual life and activity; it would like to be freed from its own human nature and existence itself to become a ‘new man.’” 

The U.S. bishops have reflected on this same structure of reality — the shape of “human nature and existence itself” — in my favorite pastoral letter, the 1995 “Faithful for Life.” There they wrote: “We are all traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Good Samaritan Story haunts us, for it flatly contradicts the presumption so widely held today that our loyalties and obligations are only to those we choose. On the contrary, it is we who are chosen to go out of our way for the other.” 

Given what is actually at stake in our current abortion conflicts, then, how should we speak into the post-Dobbs maelstrom? 

I would recommend that before proposing any particular pro-life measure or opposing any particular pro-abortion measure, we first unveil the culture and anthropology underlying the demands for a legal right of abortion. 

Take the blunt advice of Catholic novelist Walker Percy in his marvelous 1981 New York Times editorial addressing evidence of abortion advocates’ then-current gains: “It looks as if you may get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.” 

So let’s describe what they’re doing: denying the entire idea of a social fabric, of every single human being’s neediness and interdependence, and of the obligation of the stronger to care for the weaker. 

Then frame what we are doing as the antithesis of this approach and what Americans really want to be. In other words, make it clear that we are never merely seeking to pass a law giving the unborn six or 12 or 15 weeks of cover. 

We are never only trying to assure an aborted child a decent burial or a stricken woman the opportunity for a pill reversal. 

First and foremost, we are working to preserve human rights as Americans understand them when they’re thinking about reality and when they are aspiring to be the human-rights beacon we imagine ourselves. 

We are affirming the reality that people need one another, that children need us in a very particular way and the vulnerable need help constantly, as do adults in fact. 

Only then should we advance our specific proposal and exhort our fellow citizens in this pluralistic democracy to go as far as we can now to protect the unborn and their mothers. And then further in the future as we strengthen our commitment to the human rights of all.