Current's Forum: The End of RoeHistorians in the News
tags: Roe v. Wade, abortion
This past Friday afternoon, as the tidal wave of the Dobbs decision was washing over us all, the editors put out a call to friends of Current for brief responses to the moment—responses that might range from the personal to the analytical, from the prophetic to the meditative, from the left to the right. Hoping for two days’ worth of submissions, we received way more—a windfall of wit and wisdom, layered in no small amount of anguish.
Our forum “The End of Roe” will run through Thursday of this week. It will feature reflections from scholars, writers, pastors, professors, and activists who have been engaged in this most divisive and personal of issues for many years, some since the Roe decision itself. We hope that amid your own responses to this moment you will find this forum an aid to deepening understanding and fruitful action.
Please note that we’ve removed our paywall for the site through the end of this forum—The Editors.
As a young person I was taught that being a Christian meant being a single-issue voter. Upon hearing the news of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, I wondered how this day must feel for so many American Christians who have stood firm against broader cultural norms and sustained a political commitment to being pro-life. It must feel like a moral V-Day after so many years of trying to live faithfully, by casting votes to employ one’s political agency so that the “right” person would be in the White House, so that the “right” justices would be appointed to the Supreme Court, so that this very day would come to pass. And however unfathomable it is for those of us born into a Roe v. Wade world, here it is. And here we are.
But in response to what I imagine to be a largely uncomplicated experience of elation is a haunting fragment of a Bible verse: “. . . what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26 KJV). And I can’t help but feel deep sorrow for what has already been lost in the fight to gain this particular Supreme Court outcome, and what will continue to be lost in years ahead.
To gain this victory so many Christians have had to repress what dismay they might have had about the ways former President Trump’s moral character and behaviors ran contrary to historical Christian teachings about the good, truth, and love, and then construct elaborate self-justifying narratives to make acceptable our role in the ascendancy of a man who would use the office of the presidency to legitimize an ugly mocking spirit towards those who are not in his favor, promote blatant forms of disinformation, and eventually encourage the use of citizen violence to perform dominance and power.
To gain this victory, relationships have been bargained away in a failure to care about the vexing reproductive inequities, dangers, and adversities disproportionately experienced by women marginalized by economics, race, and/or the law because of their immigrant status.
Felicia Wu Song is Professor of Sociology at Westmont College. Her book Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age was recently released by InterVarsity Press Academic. She is associate editor of Current.
A moral issue, not a legal issue
On an occasion as momentous as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I think it’s instructive to look at historical precedents and context.
The historical precedent that immediately comes to mind is the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment on January 16, 1919, which represented the culmination of efforts on the part of evangelicals (and others) to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Prohibition, however, proved impossible to enforce, and it led to rampant lawlessness and the expansion of organized crime. The parallels are not exact, of course, but I’ve long argued that abortion should be treated as a moral issue, not a legal issue. Another way of saying this is that I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I would like to make it unthinkable. If the antiabortion folks believe that the Dobbs decision will significantly attenuate the incidence of abortion, I fear they are mistaken. The real battleground over abortion is, and always has been, moral, not legal.
Second, context. Let’s remember that evangelicals regarded abortion as a Catholic issue until the late 1970s, long after the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. Following a conference jointly sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society in 1968, twenty-three evangelical theologians issued a statement saying they could not agree that abortion was sinful, “but about the necessity of it and the permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.” Two successive editors of Christianity Today concurred. Southern Baptists, meeting in St. Louis in 1971, called for the legalization of abortion, a resolution they reaffirmed in 1974, the year after Roe, and again in 1976. Jerry Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first antiabortion sermon until February 26, 1978, more than five years after Roe, and James Dobson acknowledged in 1973 that the Bible was silent on the matter and therefore it was plausible for an evangelical to believe that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being.”
The antiabortion movement is celebrating the Dobbs decision, but I believe the real struggle to limit the incidence of abortion lies outside of the legal and judicial process.
Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (Eerdmans).