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Abortion and the March for Life

Charles Rice | Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The seats, about 250, on the buses were sold out almost immediately. The riders subjected themselves to a 10-hour trip each way. In between, they had to sleep on a gym floor, spend long hours out in the cold and do what they could for food, etc. Where were they going? A concert? The Motor City Bowl? Not quite. They are Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students going to the March for Life in Washington. It marked the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22.

A reasonable observer might ask, “Why bother?” Maybe students just don’t have enough to do. The reality, however, is that those students are doing something real and important.

For most readers of these words, Roe v. Wade is ancient history. Since that ruling in 1973, more than 42 million unborn children have been legally executed by surgical abortion through 2002. That is the last year for which the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the source of the most complete statistics, has reported. Since the early 1990s the totals have leveled out and declined somewhat. In 2002, the total was about 1.29 million. Those figures do not include the uncountable but increasing number of early abortions by chemicals, intrauterine devices and other means. The legalized execution of unborn children is a fixed reality in our law and culture. Victims from the first decade of Roe would have already attended, had they lived, their tenth college reunions.

You have rights under the Constitution because you are a person. In any civilized society where personhood is the condition for possessing rights, every innocent human being should be entitled to be treated as a person. The theory of Roe is simple. The Court declined to decide whether the unborn child is a living human being. The Court held instead that, whether or not he is such, he is not a person. The ruling is the same in effect as a ruling that an acknowledged human being is a nonperson and therefore has no rights. That depersonalization principle of Roe is the principle that underlay both the Nazi extermination of the Jews and the depersonalization of slaves in the Dred Scott case of 1857.

If the students in the March seek to accomplish a restoration of legal rights to the unborn child they are embarked on an exercise in futility. The most the Court will do is to let the states decide whether to allow or prohibit abortion. That would confirm the nonpersonhood of the unborn child, because if an innocent human being is subject to being executed whenever a legislature authorizes it, he is a nonperson.

The Court will soon rule on the federal prohibition of partial-birth abortion. That case, however, is a sideshow. The issue there is not whether innocent human beings may be legally executed and not even which ones may be so killed, but rather how the killing is to be done. In any event, the restoration of legal rights to that child will not happen because early-abortion technology is irrevocably moving abortion beyond the effective reach of the law.

For these reasons, abortion is now essentially not a legal problem but one that is cultural and – dare we say it? – religious. Here is where the March for Life becomes a big deal and the students are doing something real and important.

The students from ND/SMC Right to Life are joining other thousands at the March for Life in giving witness not only to justice but also to peace. In his message for the World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 2006, Benedict XVI said “[t]he right to life … is not subject to the power of man. Peace requires… a clear boundary between what is at man’s disposal and what is not…. As far as the right to life is concerned, we must denounce its widespread violation…. Alongside the victims of armed conflicts, terrorism and the different forms of violence, there are the silent deaths caused by hunger, abortion, experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. How can we fail to see in all this an attack on peace?” Benedict described abortion and embryonic experimentation as “a direct denial of that attitude of acceptance of others that is indispensable for … peace.” The evils named by Benedict prevent peace because they deny what he called “the requirements of the nature bestowed on man by the Creator.” Legalized abortion is part of a bigger picture.

Benedict entrusted his prayer for peace to “the Queen of Peace” who is, of course, Notre Dame. As Right to Life chairman Mary Elizabeth Walter described it, the journey to the March for Life is “not so much a demonstration but a prayer.” Those students embody Notre Dame at its best. They have their act together, evidently more than some faculty.

Prof. Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. He can be reached at (574) 633-4415 or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.