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Which Comes First: Changing the Culture or Changing the Law?

Jeffrey Bruno

Catholic News Agency - James S. Cole - published on 07/30/13

In the fight against abortion, changing hearts is the goal. But don't underestimate the power of laws to shape attitudes.

From time to time, especially during election campaigns pitting pro-life against pro-abortion candidates, there are calls for pro-lifers to give up the political struggle and to focus on cultural change. For instance, Brian Fisher, of Online for Life, a group which uses the internet to reach out to people thinking of abortion, recently asserted in the Washington Postthat “There are some who affirm life who believe that overturning Roe v. Wade is the only viable way to stop abortion.”

This is a straw man argument which fails to recognise the close link between law and culture. I have worked for many years in volunteer capacities from the lowest to highest levels in Missouri Right to Life and I don’t know any of my colleagues who believe that overturning Roe is “the only viable way to stop abortion.” Most of us understand our movement to be more complex, as are the concrete issues and social circumstances that we must address.

While overturning Roe v. Wade is an important legal goal, it is neither the ultimate legal goal (a Constitutional amendment to protect human lives would be the ultimate legal goal) nor a realistic short-term goal, given the current makeup of the US Supreme Court. In the mean time we must work to save as many lives as we can. We want these vulnerable human beings to have a chance to live a full and complete life, with all its joys and sorrows.

It would be gratifying to see Roe v. Wade reversed and American culture re-established on its foundational principles. But at the moment such aspirations must take second place to the primary aim of saving human lives. And in this, an essential weapon is political action and incremental legal change.

This requires effort in many fields, from the courts, the media, Hollywood and universities to welfare policies. Like a war, a great social movement requires many different types of service, with different organizations carrying out different roles. Participants will not take an active part in all of these, but changing the law on abortion is an important task that some must tackle and that all should support.

It is a profound error to adopt the view that we cannot change the law until we change the culture. Pro-abortionists did not wait until the culture was pro-abortion to change the law; from the 1960s they have worked tirelessly in the courts.

A short review of the history of abortion law is in order.

Most statutes prohibiting abortion were enacted in the mid-1800s, after scientific observations of fertilization occurred. It was obvious that a new human being, in biological terms, was created at fertilization, and thereafter there was only change by development, not change in kind, up to the time of birth. After this was understood, the American Medical Association led efforts to put criminal sanctions into statutes in order to protect nascent human life.

A century later, in 1967, Colorado became the first state to loosen abortion restrictions. It allowed them for limited reasons early in pregnancy. Over the next three years, 13 states followed Colorado’s lead. The last of these, New York, enacted a unique and hotly-contested statute that allowed abortions for any reason through the 24th week of the baby’s gestation. (Many 24-week preemies now survive.) The New York legislature actually passed a repeal of that law two years later, but it was vetoed by the then-Governor, Nelson Rockefeller.

After 1970, the movement toward pro-abortion legislation sputtered out. After New York, only one more state legislature adopted a more liberal abortion law until Roe v. Wade was decided, while 30 state legislatures rejected such laws during that time. The people of two more states, Michigan and North Dakota, rejected pro-abortion ballot measures late in 1972, just a few months before 

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