Lots of us woke up this morning to the news that a draft Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision had the support of the majority of justices on the Court. For the first time ever, a SCOTUS draft decision has been leaked weeks before its formal released.
Already tons of digital ink have been spilled (and it’s not even noon as I write this). So let me spill a bit more. Why? Because Roe v. Wade was (and is) one of the most consequential legal decisions of the 20th century. It legalized abortion throughout the United States and made efforts by states to ban abortion essentially illegal. It took decisions regarding abortion away from the states in favor of a national regime where abortion-on-demand was allowed within certain legal parameters.
Even more important, Roe v. Wade represented a shift in the ongoing American conflict regarding human rights and dignity. Before Roe, African Americans and Native Americans were denied the human rights and liberties spoke about in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, and it wasn’t until the 1960s (and a great deal of social conflict) that the country began to apply these rights to those citizens. Now with Roe, the question of whether children conceived but not yet born were entitled to those same rights became front and center. But Roe also forced recognition of the rights of women in our society. Were women truly equal to men in a world where social custom walled off women from many jobs in the workplace and in the social, political, and religious life of our country? What are the limits and boundaries of our human and personal rights when they come into conflict?
I’m not here to rehearse the biblical, theological, historical, and cultural arguments about abortion. Many others have done that far better than myself. The matter that is now front-and-center for Christians like myself is how we follow Christ in a post-Roe context? It’s the same question that many of us wrestle with after the Obergfell decision of 2015 granted legal status to same-sex marriage. Our responses are different, but the cultural impact is in some ways similar.
So, what will a post-Roe world look like? Let me offer some ideas for your consideration. First, overturning Roe v. Wade returns the political calculus regarding abortion to the early 1970s when states made their own decisions regarding the legality of abortion. It won’t surprise you that California (my home growing up) was the first state in the union to legalize abortion. It may surprise you that the governor who signed that act in 1967 was none other than Ronald Reagan.
We’re back to the place where abortion will be legal in some states and illegal in others. Hence, the new abortion battlegrounds will be the state legislatures and courts. Sociologists have suggested that we are in the midst of what they term “the great sort” where people of more liberal persuasion congregate in some states while folks more conservative congregate in different states. Add to that the reality that the political parties are now dominated by extremists on both the left and the right, the contest over abortion will likely become more intense in the years to come. Already this morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders called on Democrats in Congress to immediately kill the Senate filibuster so that Democrats could use their narrow congressional majorities to pass federal legislation making abortion legal throughout the country.
Second, as bad and divisive as our political rhetoric and activity has become, expect it to get worse. Over the past several years, the GOP has moved away from political conservatism to a shrill populism that culminated in the Capitol riots of last January 6. Abortion is something that animates elements of the Democratic left, and I wouldn’t be surprised by any visceral reaction from that side of the political spectrum. Should SCOTUS overturn Roe v. Wade next month, the American political calculus will shift in unforeseen ways. Charlie Sykes over at The Bulwark puts it well. “Instead of lowering the temperature, overturning Roe guarantees that abortion will continue to be the bloody shirt of our politics for decades.”
There are implications for American Christianity. Many (not all) evangelicals have long struggled to overturn Roe v. Wade. Will their tendency be to “declare victory and go home?” Overturning Roe v. Wade will not erase human need and if anything, our cities, states, and nation should be crafting policies that are both pro-woman and pro-child. (I reject the notion that we must trade one for the other.) That means more work for our congregations–not only teaching the gospel but engaging our communities with ministries like foster-parenting, affordable housing, strengthening public education, support for women caught in crisis pregnancy situations; in other words, making our communities places where men, women, and children can flourish.
If Roe v. Wade falls, how will we respond, how will I respond? I won’t “celebrate” because in my view, the hard work is only beginning. It will be a time for both gratefulness and humility. It will be a time for mercy. Maybe it will even be a time when American evangelicalism can shake off its worldliness and become a movement where love for God and love for others take center-stage.