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What Roe v. Wade Can Teach Us

There’s a lot of talk, this weekend, celebrating the 48th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade opinion, giving women the right to abort unwanted pregnancies. The anniversary of Roe also gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we feel about President Biden’s calls for more national unity. 

Unity, particularly in such a bitterly divided nation, requires some respect for truth. We have just spent months listening to lies about election fraud and the need for violent insurrection, while also being required, as taxpayers, to foot the bill for at least 61 lawsuits, filed nominally about “election challenges” but apparently actually filed for no purpose other than supporting the Donald’s final fundraising campaign while in office. 

Courts require evidence, not merely strident PR claims made to cameras and microphones. Characterizing people in the press or in political campaigns is quite different from characterizing them in a court of law. The past couple of months have shown how the former can be destructive and divisive, leading even to deaths. 

Change happens slowly, with each generation implementing changes that benefit species as a whole.

 Roe v. Wade was decided on January 22, 1973. It was a time of national introspection. The Civil Rights activism of the 50s and 60s had given way to a national focus on anti-Vietnam War activism. Both the Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movements drew leadership and ideals from churches. But with subtle differences. 

The Civil Rights Movement drew power and leadership from Black churches, some northern but mostly southern, some well to do, but many richer in faith than dollars. The Anti-War Movement found support and leadership in urban, white Catholic Churches, often built on the financial success of industrial unions and the factory workers to whom the unions had delivered better wages and conditions. 

Where the Civil Rights Movement drew heavily on strong women who too often had to be heads of families, who had to take responsibility whether they wanted it or not, the Anti-War Movement was tinged with Catholic history of repressing women, compounding the apprehension that it was men and boys who were most at risk from the expanding war. With draft-age men feeling at risk of imminent death, the rights and roles of women in the Anti-War Movement were a retrenchment from the more egalitarian Civil Rights Movement. 

It was also a time when television news was hitting its stride. After covering Civil Rights struggles and crimes, and adjusting to new color film technologies and dramatic run-n-gun coverage from Vietnam, TV made heroes out of identifiable rebels from iconographicly costumed priests to bearded poets voicing a new revolution. While TV still “honored” women in their roles as homemakers, supporting wives in sitcoms and advertising. 

But increasingly not in the minds of the women. Women still dealt with men as they are, not as TV presents its heroes. Complicated, both strong and weak, tender and cruel, but most often no smarter than the women who ran the households and the offices for which men claimed credit. 

As Roe v. Wade made its way up through the layers of Courts, judges were inundated with new claims and legal arguments about civil rights and Constitutional interpretation that were informed by TV and press journalism which was watched as much by judges as by anyone else. Judges who had their own wives and daughters at home to argue for new understanding of old and out of date roles. If a daughter could graduate from law school and argue in the same courts as a son, should her arguments about her own body be discounted? And on what basis? 

Law is a living thing, and like all living things, it grows. Often more slowly than some people would like. But by 1965, the Supreme Court had held that married couples had a right to purchase and use birth control without state interference. Women were gaining more freedom. In 1972, the Court held that unmarried couples had an equal right to married couples to birth control. 

These decisions included expressions that laws restricting individual rights, to be Constitutional, had to be grounded in some rational government purpose which was logically connected to the law’s restrictions. Interfering with the sexual decisions of married and unmarried couples didn’t have any rational basis. 

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When it decided Roe v. Wade, the Court relied on the earlier decisions. It found no acceptable legal justification for interfering with women’s decisions about terminating pregnancy at least through the first trimester and perhaps into the middle of the second. All of this is well argued and well settled law. 

It is important to speak truth to powerful interests. When Roe v. Wade was decided, all mainstream Protestant churches, including the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”), applauded the decision as a recognition of women’s human rights. This support was not any sort of snap judgment or hasty response offered for a busy news cycle. In 1971, the SBC adopted a resolution supporting legislation to allow women to have abortions. 

In the spring of 1967, clergymen founded the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (“CCS”) to provide women not with abortions, but rather with accurate information from which they could make their own decisions on reproduction. CCS clergymen also spoke at legislative hearings and as court witnesses about the right to religious freedom to practice control of one’s own body. 

In the fall of 1978, 5½ years after the Roe v. Wade decision, the Washington Association of Churches, working with the Washington State Catholic Conference published a survey of positions on abortion is all mainstream protestant churches. The survey included statements from Baptists, Brethren, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, each of which supported a woman’s right to decide the momentous and tragic decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy.

The SBC would not begin its opposition to abortion until 1980, when Paul Weyrich, a Caltholic political fundraiser, showed the SBC how profitable anti-abortion politics and fundraising could be. Beginning in 1980 and through the present, the SBC became increasingly anti-abortion, anti-women and more focused on profit and political gain than on Christianity. But in 1973, the SBC supported Roe v. Wade, and continued to do so for years. 

The profits for changing position can be enormous. In 1995, the New American Standard Bible was altered to support the anti-abortion business. The passage at Exodus 21:22-25 was altered to change the original reference from “miscarriage” to “birth prematurely.” This was a specific alteration to eliminate the bible’s only reference to the difference between a fetus and a person. In the original bible language, it was not a serious matter to destroy a fetus. But by altering the passage to eliminate the distinction, the publisher became the default source for the anti-abortion fundraising business, guaranteed to rake in dough from sales of the revised bible. 

While the SBC and other profit-centered church businesses were becoming less Christian, and more divisive over anti-abortion fundraising, the LGBTQ+ movement was setting a different example. In June, 1973, six months after the Roe v. Wade decision, and four years after the Stonewall uprising, lesbians protested that a Stonewall memorial celebration should not include transvestites, on the ground that transvestites were insulting to “real” women. 

Simply put, in 1973 lesbian activists did not recognize the breadth of actual gender expression that we have now come to understand as part of the human norm. But they learned. Just as men learned that women could do any jobs, gays and lesbians have learned that gender expression can take many forms and is a continuum across human nature. 

tom hall

As we start a new administration, we are faced with two examples. One shows the opportunities for vast profits from divisive issue fundraising. The other shows how rapidly social progress can be made when political and legal activity is the product of cooperative, unifying action. The decades of slow, frustrating work to bring about today’s broad acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights and equality may seem far too slow for most members of that community. But compared to the ongoing struggles for Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and women’s equality, the LGBTQ+ movement is a beacon of hope, shining light on how rapidly change can happen, IF people cooperate to make it happen. 

There is no example of any oppressed group achieving lasting equality by any overnight revolution. Change happens slowly, with each generation implementing changes that benefit species as a whole. And it has to be a good thing that a Native American will now help manage our national resources, and a consumer advocate will help regulate banks. In my lifetime, the U.S. military was strictly segregated. Now we have a Black Secretary of Defense. Even the anti-war activist in me has to see this as progress. 

Democracy remains both a goal and a process. We will never achieve the lasting goal if we count on others to handle the process. Roe v. Wade is a constant reminder that there are and always will be business interests, willing to abandon any principle, willing to rewrite any history in pursuit of profit.

Tom Hall

It is our duty to ourselves and to our children to resist, to insist on our rights, by exercising our responsibilities to self-govern, and self-govern, and self-govern some more. 

Tom Hall