On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (and inaugural hoopla day), I want to talk about liberation, but not of a racial sort. Rather, I want to talk about the Roe vs. Wade abortion rights decision of 40 years ago tomorrow that, in the end, liberated women to make their own legal decisions about whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
It was both a good U.S. Supreme Court decision and a bad one.
It was good in that it legalized what should not have been a crime in the first place. (I'm looking at you, Texas.) But it was bad in that it occurred before society could, on its own, come to any kind of consensus about the matter. The result is that the court decision has left the country almost permanently split with no hope that I can see of any reasonable compromise on any side.
And just for the record, let me repeat my own position, which is that abortion, in Bill Clinton's words, should be legal but rare. It should be legal because there are times when it's the least evil of a series of evil choices. It should be more rare than it is because everyone knows there are times when abortion is used as a matter of convenience and as a birth control tool. I think such uses of abortion are morally indefensible. How often is abortion used this way? I don't know. Once is once too many times.
The problem the Supreme Court faced, however, is that it agreed to decide whether abortion should be legal at a time when there had been no intentional and extended national conversation about the matter. Something a little like that is happening now with the court's agreement to decide the legal standing of same-sex marriage. (Though it's clear that society is moving rather quickly toward acceptance of such unions. And we can hope the court will understand that movement and the increasingly clear will of the people.)
In the best of all possible worlds, such devisive matters should be given time and space so that our society can move toward a consensus without having to have the courts intervene. But that is rarely an option. The U.S. came to a social consensus about slavery, for instance, only as the result of the Civil War.
So 40 years after the Roe vs. Wade decision, we continue to have harsh legislative battles over abortion. We continue to have wingnuts proposing and using violence to stop women from getting abortions. (Click here to read about plans to reopen the clinic in Wichita once operated by Dr. George Tiller, murdered by an anti-abortion extremist.) We continue to have politicians who on most other issues would describe themselves as proponents of small government but who on this issue want the government not only in people's bedrooms but also in women's vaginas.
And we continue to have too many abortions. Still, I don't want Roe vs. Wade reversed. But it would be nice to have some calm, well-informed discussion about how to make abortions both legal and rare.
(Oh, and the Religion Newswriters Association put together this collection of resources for journalists covering the 40th anniversary of Roe. Surf around there. You might learn something.)
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THE SHAPE OF FAITH IN THE U.S. ON DISPLAY TODAY
If you watch presidential inaugural events closely today, will they give you at least a broad picture of the religious landscape of the nation? You bet. But you have to pay attention to details.