Forty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. In terms of demographics, that means almost two generations of Americans have lived their entire life in a country with legalized abortion. It is an anniversary worth noting because it has come to define, devastate, and destroy millions of people – who, in this one college history teacher’s view, we could call the “Roe Generations” – across the United States.
The First Generation, 1973-1993
Lives changed just as much as vocabulary with the Roe decision. For the first generation that came of age between 1973 and 1993, legalized abortion and its consequences warped their understandings of marriage and family. And although most people didn’t want to debate it publicly, the shaky legal foundations constructed for abortion by the Supreme Court poisoned an already bitter political climate.
The source for understanding the basis for such shifts is the opinion authored by Justice Harry Blackmun. According to Blackmun, a majority of the justices considered abortion a woman’s right of privacy guaranteed primarily under the Fourteenth Amendment. The history of abortion up to 1973 that the Court presented furthermore claimed that the definition of person under the Fourteenth Amendment “does not include the unborn.” Equally shocking for a generation already scarred by the fallout of Watergate and Vietnam, Blackmun declared that the Court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.”
“When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus,” Blackmun concluded, “the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
The Second Generation, 1993-2013
Yet the practical life-and-death consequences of legalized abortion permitted by the Roe decision demanded (and still demand) answers to such important questions. The good news is that science and faith converge with a clearer voice on many issues today about the origins of human life and the connections among all persons. Thanks to ultrasound technology, for example, it is impossible today to make a compelling case that a “fetus” isn’t a human life. In Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (2008), Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen explain how embryo science confirms that “human embryos are, from the very beginning, human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become” (3, italics in original).
For Catholics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs with unequivocal clarity that conception - the “very beginning” – marks the point when human life “must be respected and protected absolutely” as well as recognized as possessing “the rights of a person” (CCC, 2270). It is a position by the Church on abortion that “has not changed” and “remains unchangeable” (CCC, 2271).
This week, as we look forward to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., consider the wisdom that speaks about every life across all generations: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Take time to talk about life with the ones you know. Speak about its dignity, how abortion scandalizes it, and pray for the roughly 55 million unborn persons who are a part but will always remain apart physically from the “Roe Generations.” Do it so that 40 years from now others in our place don’t think that the Roe decision allowed them to see the dignity of human life as little more than a dream.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.