The following was originally published in the New York Times in 1992. It continues to be a foundational document, relevant to our daily work and long-term goals.
Over the next months and years, the American people will confront again the question that Lincoln posed at Gettysburg: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to human equality can long endure. In this generation, the issue pressing that question on our consciences is the issue of abortion.
We who propose the new American compact outlined below are men and women of diverse callings and political perspectives. We are public officials, medical professionals, scholars, and feminists; we are liberals and conservatives; Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and agnostics. We have sought to reflect carefully on the abortion controversy. We are making our reflections public in the hope that they will help all Americans cut through the static of the sound bites and discuss the linked questions of abortion, human dignity, and American freedom with the moral seriousness demanded of citizens of a democratic republic.
For almost twenty years, abortion policy in America has been controlled by the courts. That seems likely to remain the case in the immediate future, even though the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision permits state legislatures to enact some modest regulation of abortion practice. It is to be deeply regretted that the American people have been denied the deliberative role in shaping public policy on this issue that has been played by the citizens of other developed democracies. The American people are capable of serious public moral reflection; the American people are capable of rising above partisanship on a matter of this gravity. Their voice can and must be heard, through the normal procedures of democracy.
For like the practice of slavery, and like the Jim Crow laws of the not-so-distant past, the abortion issue raises the most fundamental questions of justice”questions that cannot be avoided, and that cannot be be resolved by judicial fiat. Who belongs to the community of the commonly protected? Whose rights will we acknowledge? Whose human dignity will we respect? For whose wellbeing will we, as a people, assume responsibility? Profound issues of personal and public morality are engaged by these questions. Their resolution”and the manner in which they are debated”will determine the kind of society America will be in its third century.
A Question of Boundaries
The first two hundred years of the American Republic tell an unfolding tale of aspiration and progress toward the idea of liberty and justice for all. That progress has been rapid in some periods, halting in others; sometimes it has suffered setbacks. But from the early days of the American colonies to our own time, the basic trajectory was consistent and seemingly inexorable. The boundaries of the community of the commonly protected were steadily expanded and the story of America became the story of an ever more inclusive society. The United States welcomed its immigrants, protected its workers, freed the slaves, enfranchised women, aided the needy, provided social security for the aged, ensured the civil rights of all its citizens, and made public space accessible to the handicapped: all in service to its ideals of justice.
Then, in January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton abortion decisions, drastically reversed this pattern of expanding inclusion. In those decisions, seven unelected justices performed the most momentous act of exclusion in our history: they deprived every human being, for the first nine months of his or her life, of the most fundamental human right of all”the right to life.
Let there be no mistake about the impact of the Roe and Doe decisions: they did not “liberalize” abortion law; they abolished abortion law in all fifty states. Abortion on demand, throughout the full nine months of a pregnancy, for virtually any reason, became public policy in the United States of America. No other developed democracy had, or has, such a permissive abortion regime.
A vast abortion industry, generating some half a billion dollars annually, sprang into existence in the wake of Roe and Doe . Twenty-five million abortions have been performed in the United States since 1973. Over one-and-a-half million were performed in the past year alone. More than 40 percent of these were obtained by women who had already had one or more abortions. But less than 5 percent of the abortions performed today are performed because of rape, incest, threat to maternal health, or grave fetal deformity. Abortion after Roe and Doe has become, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a matter of ex post facto contraception.
That is not the kind of America that expresses the abiding decency and compassion of our people. It is long past time, we believe, to reconstitute the story of America as a story of inclusion and protection.
Without a Doubt, a Human Life
Those who approve of our current abortion regime sometimes claim that the child in the womb is simply an undifferentiated mass of tissue, an appendage to a woman’s body. But modern embryology and fetology exploded such pseudoscience long before Roe . Today, the sonogram has given us a veritable window into the womb and has enabled us to observe, in detail, the complex life of the child prior to birth.
From the beginning, each human embryo has its own unique genetic identity. Three and a half weeks after conception, its heart starts beating. At six weeks, brain activity can be detected. At the end of two months the limbs, fingers, and toes are complete. By three months, the baby is quite active, forming fists, bending arms, and curling toes. At four months, vocal cords, eye lashes, teeth buds, fingernails, and toenails are all present. By five months, the baby is sucking its thumb, punching, kicking, and going through the motions of crying. By six months, it responds to light and sound and can recognize its mother’s voice.
Advocates of unrestricted abortion do not want the public to focus on these undeniable facts of fetal development, but the facts cannot be ignored. They make plain that abortion is a violent act, not against “potential life,” but against a living, growing human being a life with potential.
Defending Women’s Rights
Abortion is defended today as a means of ensuring the equality and independence of women, and as a solution to the problems of single parenting, child abuse, and the feminization of poverty. The sad truth is that the abortion license has proven to be a disaster for women, children, and families and, thus, for American society.
We have had virtually unlimited access to abortion for nearly twenty years. Yet during that same period, more and more women and children have slipped into poverty. The insistence by supporters of abortion on demand that only “wanted children” be allowed to be born has not improved our infant mortality rates, which have remained among the worst in the industrialized world; nor has it helped us cope effectively with the incidence of child abuse, the frequency and severity of which have increased dramatically during this time.
Unfettered access to abortion on demand has addressed none of women’s true needs; nor has it brought dignity to women. It has, in fact, done precisely the opposite. It has encouraged irresponsible or predatory men, who find abortion a convenient justification for their lack of commitment, and has vastly expanded the exploitation of women by the abortion industry. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade , it did not even remotely envision the surgical “assembly line,” commercialization, and exploitation which thousands of women say characterize their experiences with an abortion industry intent on maximizing profits. While apologists for abortion on demand raise the specter of “back alley abortions” in response to virtually any proposed regulation of the abortion industry, the truth is that twenty years of abortion on demand have not eliminated this tragic outcome. Women and young girls still die and are injured by legally performed abortions.
We know, now, what happens when society makes the destruction of unborn life a matter of “choice.” Mutual, responsible family planning is deemphasized. Not only do women experience abortion alone; most relationships fall apart in its aftermath. The abortion license has not brought freedom and security to women. Rather, it has ushered in a new era of irresponsibility toward women and children, one that now begins before birth. It has retarded the quest for securing women’s rights by acting as a cheap substitute for real answers to the injustice women experience today.
Beyond the False Dichotomy: A New Compact of Care
The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb. The cynicism of these assumptions reflects a terrible failure of moral imagination and social responsibility and an appalling lack of respect for women.
We propose a new understanding, one that does not pit mother against child. To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license. What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers and their children, both before and after birth. Such policies would provide maximum feasible legal protection for the unborn and maximum feasible care and support for pregnant women, mothers, and children.
Our moral, religious, and political traditions are united in their respect for the dignity of human life. Only in the most extreme circumstances do they permit the taking of life; both our traditions and our law, for example, forbid killing except in case of legitimate self defense. And thus, analogously, the laws that protected the unborn prior to Roe and Doe always contained a “life of the mother” exception. Today, fortunately, pregnancy is very rarely a threat to maternal life or health. Nevertheless, a sound abortion policy would provide for the exceptional case of such a threat by permitting medical procedures necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman even when such procedures would inevitably result in death or injury to the unborn child.
The goal, surely, is enactment of the most protective laws possible on behalf of the unborn. We recognize that there are disagreements about what is possible and even desirable here. But that is precisely why, as we argued earlier, the issue should be deliberated and decided by the American people according to the democratic processes of persuasion and legislation.
At the same time, a public policy that more adequately expresses the traditions and convictions of the American people will do more than restore legal protection to the unborn.
It will take seriously the needs of women whose social or economic circumstances might tempt them to seek the abortion “solution.” It will recognize our shared responsibility, in public and private settings, to make realistic alternatives to abortion available to such women. It will support women in caring for the children they choose to raise themselves, and it will help them find homes for those they cannot raise. It will work to provide a decent life for mother and child before and after birth.
In sum, we can and we must adopt solutions that reflect the dignity and worth of every human being and that embody understanding of the community’s shared responsibility for creating policies that are truly pro-woman and pro-child. What we seek are communities and policies that help women to deal with crisis pregnancies by eliminating the crisis, not the child.
Common Choices, Common Destiny
The rhetoric of abortion advocacy contains a truth that abortion advocates often fail to perceive. Abortion is a question of choice. The “choice,” though, is not one faced by isolated women exercising private rights. It is a choice faced by all the citizens of this free society. And the choice we make, deliberatively and democratically, will do much to answer two questions: What kind of a people are we? What kind of a people will we be?
If we abandon the principle of respect for human life by making the value of a life depend on whether someone else thinks that life is worthy or wanted, we will become one sort of people.
But there is a better way.
We can choose to reaffirm our respect for human life. We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn. We can choose to provide effective care of mothers and children.
And if we make those choices, America will experience a new birth of freedom, bringing with it a renewed spirit of community, compassion, and caring.
Robert P. Casey
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Hugh L. Carey
State of New York
Peter S. Lynch
Carolyn A. Lynch
Mary Cunningham Agee
Executive Director and Founder
The Nurturing Network
Hadley Arkes, Ph.D.
Professor of American Institutions
Marc Gellman, Ph.D.
Chairman, Medical Ethics
Committee of the U.J.A. Federation
Dix Hills, New York
Pastor E. Jean Thompson, D.D.
International Black Women’s Network
James Kurth, Ph.D.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver
William E. Simon
Morristown, New Jersey
Jeannie Wallace French, M.P.H.
Founder and Director
National Women’s Coalition for Life
The J. F. Donahue Family
Moshe Tendler, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical Law and
New York, New York
David Novak, Ph.D.
Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies
University of Virginia
William C. Porth, Jr., Esquire
Charleston, West Virginia
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Mary Ann Glendon
Harvard University School of Law
Sidney Callahan, Ph.D.
Dobbs Ferry, New York
Patricia Wesley, M.D.
Yale University School of Medicine
New Haven, Connecticut
Ronald J. Sider, Ph.D.
Evangelicals for Social Action
University of Chicago Law School
Professional Women’s Network
Jon Levenson, Ph.D.
Albert List Professor of Jewish Studies
Rachel Macnair, President
Feminists for Life of America
Kansas City, Missouri
Leon R. Kass, M.D.
University of Chicago
New York, New York
Christine Smith Torre, Esquire
Feminists for Life Law Project
Robert P. George, Ph.D.
Princeton, New Jersey
Kathy Walker, President
Women Exploited By Abortion, Inc.
Professor Gerard V. Bradley
Notre Dame Law School
Notre Dame, Indiana
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus
Institute on Religion and Public Life
New York, New York
Micheline Mathews-Roth, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
Edmund D. Pellegrino, M.D.
John Carroll Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics
Georgetown University Medical Center