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Pro-life groups respond as Dutch queen advocates for abortion in Texas

Queen Maxima of Netherlands speaks during a visit to the Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, on September 8, 2022. - The royal visit to Texas is meant to highlight the strong economic partnership between the United States and Netherlands. The visit was hosted by Austin FC Co-Owner and recently announced Honorary Consulate to the Netherlands, Marius A. Haas, as well as Austin FC President Andy Loughnane. / Suzanne Cordiero/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 13, 2022 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

Texas pro-life leaders are challenging Queen Máxima of the Netherlands after she advocated for abortion while meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott in that state.

Unlike the queen’s country, the state of Texas limits abortion in most cases.

“The moral reality is that the Netherlands should in fact follow Texas’ lead when it comes to protecting innocent human life,” Texas Right to Life President Dr. John Seago told CNA. “Not only do they have one of the most extreme pro-abortion laws, but they also have been one of the most aggressive countries pushing for the euthanasia of vulnerable patients.”

His comments come after the queen, together with the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Corporation Liesje Schreinemacher, met with the Texas Republican governor. The queen spoke about abortion, telling press afterward that “we are completely behind that,” according to Dutch outlet NL Times, via news agency ANP, and broadcaster NOS.

Máxima added that her message to Texas women is the same as her message to other women: that they should be able to access abortion, NL Times reported on Sept. 10.

Schreinemacher also called for abortion in Texas.

“There’s one point of concern that I wanted to raise, and that is on the right to safe abortion for women. Obviously, the Netherlands has a strong standpoint in that,” Schreinemacher told Abbott, according to KXAN, a local news outlet in Austin, Texas. 

She spoke, KXAN reported, after Máxima talked about how Texas-Netherlands relations benefit both economies. She suggested they work together on abortion, too.

“I was wondering if we could, maybe partner up as counterparts to see what we can do in that [abortion] stance for Texas,” Schreinemacher said.

The Netherlands allows abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy for any reason. After 24 weeks, abortion is permitted for “serious medical reasons.”

Effective Aug. 25, Texas limits abortion in most cases, with exceptions to prevent the death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function” of the woman.

In response, Abbott advocated for protecting both mother and child.

“One thing we put high importance on here is the safety and health of the mother,” the governor told the Dutch officials, KXAN reported. “But the other thing we put importance on is the safety and health of the baby.”

The pro-life response

Following the queen’s visit, pro-life groups in Texas applauded Abbott as a pro-life governor.

“Gov. Greg Abbott has a long history of supporting policies built on respect for the dignity of all human beings including Texas mothers, their children, and vulnerable patients,” Seago said.

Texas Alliance for Life Communications Director Amy O’Donnell also expressed gratitude for Abbott and stressed that the Netherlands should learn from Texas’ example.

“It is unfortunate that Queen Máxima and Minister Schreinemacher are under the misconception that Gov. Abbott needs schooling on the abortion issue and the ability of women to advance in society,” O’Donnell told CNA. “We have complete confidence that governor and First Lady Abbott can educate the Dutch royals on how Texas successfully protects unborn babies from abortion while providing vast resources for women with unplanned pregnancies.”

Among other things, the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, funded entirely with general revenues from the state of Texas, offers help to mothers and babies by supporting pregnancy centers, maternity homes, and more, CNA previously reported.

O’Donnell added: “Texas proves that women have the ability to achieve economic and social equality without abortion.”

Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, said that his group agrees with the governor that Texas is a state that supports both women and babies.

“We are the ninth-largest economy in the world, so we can understand that the Netherlands would travel to Texas to learn more about the culture that is the basis for our economic prosperity,” he told CNA.

Queen Máxima was raised Catholic and previously attended the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. She has also met with Pope Francis. The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred from the moment of conception and considers abortion — the destruction of a human person — a grave evil. 

Democrat senators urge stronger LGBT mandates in Biden’s sex discrimination rule

Madisan DeBos, a Division I track and cross country student-athlete at Southern Utah University, speaks at the "Our Bodies, Our Sports" rally in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2022. / Katie Yoder/CNA

Washington D.C., Sep 13, 2022 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

A group of Democrat senators urged the Biden administration to add even stronger LGBTQ and abortion mandates to its proposed Title IX rule in a public comment issued Monday.

Led by Sen. Patty Murray and signed by 18 other senators, the comment issued in the form of a Sept. 12 letter celebrates the administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX’s federal ban on sex discrimination to include “sexual orientation or gender identity” and urges it to “build on this progress.” 

“We applaud the Department for taking important steps forward,” the senators wrote, adding that the Education Department should “further strengthen protections for LGBTQIA+ students and pregnant and parenting students.”

Title IX, adopted in 1972, protects Americans from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal funding.

The senators requested that the administration “clarify the scope of prohibited discrimination” regarding LGBTQ students under Title IX.

The letter recommends the rule should ensure that “students must be housed consistent with their gender identity and specify that intentional misgendering is a form of harassment.”

The senators also urged the Education Department to move forward with a rule ensuring that sports teams must allow transgender students to play on teams “consistent with their gender identity.”

“Protecting transgender students’ rights to participate in athletic activities consistent with their gender identity in no way disadvantages their fellow students, and does not take away or undermine the protections Title IX provides for women and girls,” the letter claims. 

The letter also celebrated the department’s inclusion of abortion as a protected category but called for further enforcement. 

“Given the changing landscape of abortion rights and efforts to harass, discriminate against, and intimidate students who exercise their reproductive rights, we request the Department provide further instructions on how schools should protect students’ privacy and records documenting students’ pregnancy status,” the letter added. 

Biden’s Title IX rule has been the subject of outcry since its proposal in June from concerned parents and religious groups who will be impacted by it.

Religious freedom and free speech advocates warn that the proposed rule change could be used to enforce mandates on hiring, bathrooms, using preferred pronouns, and dress codes. 

Monday ended the public comment period, during which citizens had the chance to submit feedback on the rule before it went into the finalization process. 

A record total of comments from concerned parents were submitted, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. 

“Allowing male[s’] entry into girls’ locker rooms, showers, and sports under the nebulous concept of ‘gender identity’ is discrimination against girls,” one commenter wrote, “a violation of [a] girl’s privacy, safety, and equal opportunity.”

“If this hits my kids’ school,” another parent commented, “we will file a lawsuit.”

Senate Republicans propose national ban on abortions after 15 weeks

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during news conference to announce a new bill on abortion restrictions on Capitol Hill Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Graham's proposal would enact a national ban on abortions after the 15-week mark. Also pictured, at left, is President of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America Marjorie Dannenfelser. / Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 13, 2022 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced legislation Tuesday that would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger.

The Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act is an updated version of Graham’s previous 20-week federal ban.

Speaking at a press conference alongside members of several national pro-life groups Sept. 13, Graham said the legislation was designed to “get America in a position at the federal level that’s fairly consistent with the rest of the world.”

Forty-seven out of 50 European countries have bans on abortions before 15 weeks. France, for example, bans abortions beginning at 12 weeks.

“This act provides the bare minimum protections for vulnerable unborn children,” Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, said at the conference. Mancini added that the United States ranks with North Korea and China in allowing “gruesome, late-term elective abortion[s].”

15-week ban aligns with science of fetal pain

The bill’s rationale rests on the overwhelming scientific and medical consensus that unborn children feel pain by 15 weeks’ gestation. 

“Pain receptors … begin forming at 7 weeks gestational age,” the bill’s text reads. 

The bill cites the fact that anesthesia is used in medical procedures performed on unborn children in the womb to prevent suffering from pain. 

The bill would impose criminal penalties on abortionists who commit abortions on unborn children 15 weeks or older.

It also forbids the prosecution of women who obtain these abortions and allows them to pursue civil action against abortionists in violation of the bill.

Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, leader of the House Pro-Life Caucus and a Catholic, introduced an identical House version of the bill this afternoon, for which he was joined by more than 80 members of Congress.

“Every day, a whole segment of human beings is being subjected to painful — and deadly — procedures. This unconscionable human-rights abuse must stop,” Smith said in a statement.

Bill would allow most abortions to continue

Graham’s bill is supported by a variety of pro-life groups, including Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, National Right to Life Committee, Americans United for Life, March for Life, and Urban Cure.

It is being messaged as a counter to Senate Democrats’ Women’s Health and Protection Act — reintroduced after Roe v. Wade was overturned this year — which would legalize abortion on-demand through all nine months of pregnancy.

“Democrats’ pro-abortion extremism flies in the face of American public opinion, which strongly supports compassionate limits on abortion like those proposed today by Sen. Graham and Rep. Smith,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Graham’s bill may not garner equal support from all pro-life organizations.

A 15-week ban has been “long denounced by many in the antiabortion movement because it would allow the vast majority of abortions to continue,” the Post wrote.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 92% of abortions occur before 15 weeks’ gestation and around 6% of abortions occur at or after 15 weeks.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Mancini said at the press conference. “At the March for Life, we work for a day when abortion is unthinkable.”

White House, Democrats condemn bill

Graham’s bill faced immediate backlash from pro-abortion activists and prominent Democrats, who are denouncing the move as a reversal from states’ rights.

“‘Let the states decide’ was always a lie,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, tweeted. “They want to ban abortion in every state, in every community.”

At the press conference, Graham said that “it is left up to the elected officials in America to define the issue.”

“States have the ability to do it at the state level, and we have the ability in Washington to speak on this issue if we choose. I have chosen to speak,” he said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre issued a statement condemning the bill on Tuesday.

“Today, Senator Graham introduced a national ban on abortion which would strip away women’s rights in all 50 states,” Jean-Pierre said. “This bill is wildly out of step with what Americans believe.”

The ban is unlikely to advance, with a Democrat-controlled Congress and the White House held by President Joe Biden, who is on record as one of the most pro-abortion presidents in history.

Pro-life leaders condemn Planned Parenthood’s abortion increase in new report

Planned Parenthood gets millions of dollars in federal support each year. / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 13, 2022 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Planned Parenthood released its 2020–2021 annual report on Friday, revealing an increase in abortions and a decrease in other “services.”

For the year 2020, the nation’s largest abortion provider ended the lives of 383,460 unborn children. That number is 28,589 more abortions than those performed in 2019 by Planned Parenthood.

“To put this violence into perspective, this is equivalent to FIVE Super Bowl stadiums,” the March for Life tweeted in response to the new number.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion research organization once associated with Planned Parenthood, there were 930,160 abortions total in the United States for 2020. This means that Planned Parenthood performed roughly 41% of all U.S. abortions that year.

In addition to the increase in abortions, Planned Parenthood affiliates also received more in taxpayer funding, or “Government Health Services Reimbursements & Grants.” It obtained $633.4 million for the 2020–2021 fiscal year, after receiving $618.1 million the previous year.

While abortions increased since the last report, almost every other category of “medical services” by Planned Parenthood centers decreased, including STI testing and treatment, contraceptive services, cancer screenings and prevention, and “other reproductive health services.” 

While Planned Parenthood reported that it provided approximately 10.4 million “total services” in 2019, that number decreased to 8.6 million in 2020. Planned Parenthood also saw a decrease in patients, from 2.4 million in 2019 to 2.16 million in 2020.

The new report defended abortion. 

“Planned Parenthood health centers are proud to provide abortion,” the report declares, calling abortion “essential health care.”

Only once did the report mention Roe v. Wade, which the Supreme Court overturned in June, leaving abortion up to the states.

“Who are we going to be? This is the question we’ve been asking ourselves, in the final months of nationwide abortion rights under Roe v. Wade,” the report reads. “And the answer to that question comes from Planned Parenthood’s mission of providing care and fighting for everyone’s right to access it, no matter what.” 

In response to the report, pro-life leaders condemned the new numbers — and Planned Parenthood’s timing in releasing them.

“Planned Parenthood thinks releasing their annual report on a Friday night will camouflage the rising body count, but almost 383,460 infants died from their ‘care’ over the last year as they profited in the billions,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, tweeted. “If your health care kills people, you’re doing it wrong.” 

As president of Live Action, Lila Rose pointed out the decrease in clients with the increase in abortion and taxpayer funding.

“Shut them down now!” she remarked, adding that Planned Parenthood ends the lives of roughly 1,051 babies per day.

Planned Parenthood did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

‘Clerical error’ wipes out thousands of comments on new Biden gender-identity discrimination rule

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 12, 2022 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

Today marks the end of the public comment period for the Biden administration’s updated Title IX rule after hundreds of thousands of comments disappeared from the record this weekend in a move the Education Department is calling a “clerical error.” 

The rule has been the subject of outcry from concerned parents and religious groups who will be impacted by it since its proposal in June when the administration re-interpreted Title IX's federal ban on sex discrimination to include “sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

Religious freedom and free speech advocates warn that the proposed rule change could be used to enforce mandates on hiring, bathrooms, using preferred pronouns, and dress codes. 

First reported by Politico in a weekly education newsletter, public comments on the rule numbered over 349,000 in the Federal Register last Tuesday. On Friday, however, more than 160,000 comments vanished from the website, reducing the total to 184,009 entries.

The department told Politico reporter Bianca Quilantan it had found a “clerical error” that “boosted” the number of comments on the rule.

Regulations.gov states that the number of posted comments may be lower than the number it receives because agencies can choose “to redact or withhold certain submissions,” such as those including private information, inappropriate language, or duplications.

However, Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow for the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, told CNA in an email the disappearance is troubling.

“The jaw-dropping disparity in the Federal Register’s number of total comments received on the proposed Title IX rule from one day to the next, without explanation or disclaimer, should raise alarm bells for American parents whose children at federally funded schools will receive the direct impact of any finalized rule,” Perry said. 

“Whether the sudden loss of nearly 200,000 citizen comments stems from incompetence or obfuscation, the Department of Education has some explaining to do,” Perry stated. 

“One wonders whether if Politico hadn’t prompted the department for a response, the agency would have clarified the disparity at all,” she added.

Regardless of the disparity, the record number of comments reflects vehement concerns from parents fearing the rule will affect their children’s safety in schools or the ability of girls to play on all-girls’ sports teams. 

“Allowing male[s’] entry into girls’ locker rooms, showers, and sports under the nebulous concept of ‘gender identity’ is discrimination against girls,” one commenter wrote, “a violation of [a] girl’s privacy, safety, and equal opportunity.”

“I [am] concerned that this rule also may be used by the department to further their political interests by promoting LGBT curriculum in public schools across the country,” another said. “America’s girls deserve better. I urge you to rescind this rule.”

“If this hits my kids’ school, we will file a lawsuit,” a parent commented.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

How to honor Our Lady in your baby’s name for the feast of the Holy Name of Mary

The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the “Santa Maria del Carmine” (Holy Mary of Carmel) church in Pavia, Italy. / Adam Jan Figel/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 12, 2022 / 09:30 am (CNA).

Every year on Sept. 12 since 1683, the Catholic Church has celebrated the feast of the Holy Name of Mary.

Officially instituted as a feast day for the universal Church by Pope Innocent XI, the celebration dates back to the early 1500s when Catholics in Spain began commemorating Mary’s special graces, intercession, and mediation.

For newly expectant parents, what better way to celebrate than by considering the plentiful ways to honor the mother of Our Lord in your baby’s name?

Catholic baby-naming service dedicated to Mary

Two Catholic mothers have dedicated their vocations to doing just that. Sancta Nomina — Latin for “holy names” — is a uniquely Catholic baby name consulting service founded by Kate Towne, mother of seven children and author of Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018).

Towne’s company, run completely online through a blog format and social media channels, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and the blog’s patron saint, St. Anne. 

With the help of Theresa Zoe Williams, who joined the Sancta Nomina team last year, the service helps Catholic parents choose their child’s name in a meaningful way that honors Mary or other saints.

Over 250 ways to honor Mary in a child’s name

In an interview with CNA, Williams said that her work at Sancta Nomina has fostered an even deeper devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“I’m often reminded in this work that Mary didn’t get to choose the name of her only child, it was told to her,” Williams said. “I try to help parents listen to God when naming their children, just like Mary did. In this way, Mary greatly impacts and watches over my work and I am closer to her for it.”

When requests for help come in, Williams and Towne share duties in guiding parents through the process of finding a meaningful Catholic name for their baby.

Often, parents desire to honor Mary in their child’s name but may not realize just how many options they have.

Towne’s book details more than 250 ways to honor Mary in a baby’s name — and some options may not be what you’d expect.

Sancta Nomina specializes in finding names that are deeply connected to Mary yet might not be immediately obvious at first glance.

In one consultation, for example, one couple asked for advice in naming their baby boy, who was conceived in answer to prayer through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. 

“We both want a Marian devotion for this baby’s name,” the parents wrote, asking if there was a masculine name for a boy that honored Our Lady of Lourdes. 

Williams recommended Laurence, the name of the bishop in the region at the time of the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, and Pius. 

“[Three] popes have connections to Our Lady of Lourdes,” Williams wrote in the consultation. “Pope Pius IX approved the veneration of the apparitions at Lourdes, Pope Pius X announced the feast of the Immaculate Virgin of Lourdes, and Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on Lourdes on its 100th anniversary.”

Naming is the ‘greatest act’ 

Sancta Nomina takes the stylistic preferences and personal stories of families into account when conducting name consultations. This gives parents a chance to honor Mary in their child’s name in both implicit and explicit ways.

“God works within our personal situations, even in naming,” Williams said. 

Parents could use a derivative of Mary’s name or an uncommon connection to her, Williams explained.

“It doesn’t have to be Maria, May, or Mary; it doesn’t even have to be Miriam, or Maren,” she said. Parents can ponder a Marian place name, title, feast day, or even certain characteristics of Our Lady.

Williams says that one of her favorite suggestions from Towne’s book is to name a daughter “Ave,” as in “Ave Maria.” 

“Likewise — for boys — I love ‘Carmelo’ for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It’s unique and not used very often.” 

Williams says that a feminine version could be “Carmine.” 

“No one’s going to look at ‘Carmine’ and think, oh, Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” she said. “But you’ll know and you get to tell a story then. And what better way to share the faith than with stories?”  

According to Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholics are called to venerate the name of Mary “because it belongs to her who is the Mother of God, the holiest of creatures, the Queen of heaven and earth, the Mother of Mercy.”

“To honor [Mary] in some way in our children’s names is the greatest act we can give to our children,” Williams concluded.

You can follow Sancta Nomina here. Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018) is available on ShopMercy.org and Amazon.

Abortion in Italy

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.

 

Commentary on the overturning of Roe regularly makes references to European countries in which legislative measures have led to politically and socially acceptable compromise on abortion—some set of restrictions on a procedure that nonetheless remains legal and accessible—as if these examples could suggest a way for the United States to proceed in the aftermath of Dobbs. Italy is sometimes specifically cited, and sometimes in connection with the role of the Catholic Church in so much of Italian life.

Legge 194 (or “The 194,” as Italians call it), which the Italian Parliament passed in 1978, allows women to receive abortions through the first ninety days of pregnancy, after getting counseling in a public medical facility. Beyond ninety days, abortion is permissible “a) when pregnancy or childbirth involves a serious danger to the woman’s life; b) when pathological processes are ascertained, including those relating to significant anomalies or malformations of the unborn child, which cause a serious danger to the physical or mental health of the woman.”

When there is the possibility of viability outside the womb, interruption of pregnancy is permissible only when pregnancy or childbirth involves a serious danger to the woman’s life, and then the doctor who performs the surgery must take all appropriate measures to safeguard the life of the fetus. Before Legge 194, a woman who had an abortion risked up to four years in prison, and whoever performed an abortion faced up to five years. “The 194” has survived constitutional challenges and even a public referendum in 1981; though it decriminalized abortion, it did not make it a constitutional right.

But does Italy’s approach really have something to offer to the United States? It’s important to remember that the social, cultural, and historical tides leading to Roe in 1973 (and to Dobbs a half-century later) are far different from those that led to Legge 194 in 1978. Italy’s legislation initially grew out of a larger, somewhat drawn-out effort to overturn the legacy of fascism, particularly the penal code of 1930 (known as the Rocco Code), which applied to a number of issues. First, in 1971, the Constitutional Court ruled that Article 553 of the code, which had outlawed the “incitement of practices against procreation,” was unconstitutional. In 1975, the Italian Parliament passed a bill on family-law reform that established equality between the roles of father and mother in terms of duties and dignity. Then, in February 1975, the Constitutional Court declared Article 546 of the Rocco Code on abortion unconstitutional, ruling that the protection of an embryo is not equivalent to the right to life and health of one who is already a person, such as a pregnant woman. In 1978, the remainder of the portion of the Rocco Code pertaining to “crimes against the integrity and health of the lineage” was repealed with the passage of Legge 194.

Still, the Constitutional Court and other courts in Italy played a relatively marginal role. Policy was mainly produced through the parliamentary process, beginning in 1973, when the Socialist Party MP Loris Fortuna (who advanced the law that legalized divorce in 1970) made a moderate proposal amending the penal code on abortion. And then there was the influence of the Italian Church: in 1975, the Italian bishops’ conference issued a document that reiterated traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, but also indirectly critiqued the Fascist-era concept of abortion as a crime against the integrity of race or lineage. Then came the national elections of June 1976, which in bringing about significant gains for the Communist Party (thanks in no small part to Catholic voters) also brought about the end of the anti-abortion majority in Parliament. Leftist parties (Socialist, Communist, Proletarian Democracy), liberal-capitalist parties (Republican, Liberal, and Social Democratic), and the Radical Party—supported by numerous associations and movements—soon drafted a consensus bill on abortion that passed in the lower chamber. After being initially rejected by the senate it was resubmitted, and in May 1978, it overcame opposition from Movimento Sociale Italiano (the neo-fascist party) and Democrazia Cristiana (the Christian-Democratic party, composed mostly of Catholics) to pass. The law was then promulgated by the president of the republic, Giovanni Leone, a Catholic. Neither Leone nor any of the Catholic parliamentarians who’d supported it were threatened with canonical consequences: none of them were denied access to the sacraments (in contrast to what we’ve seen in the United States not only recently but as far back as 2004).

Today, the right-wing parties led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni care little about abortion, waging a culture war instead over the issue of immigration.

But things didn’t end there. In May 1981, 79 percent of Italy’s registered voters went to the polls to vote on a referendum that included two questions on abortion. One, put forth by the Movement for Life (officially nondenominational but largely composed of and run by Catholics), called for the repeal of Legge 194; it was rejected by 68 percent of voters. The other was advanced by the Radical Party, which called for further liberalization of abortion law—specifically, eliminating the prohibition on abortion for women under the age of eighteen, lifting the ninety-day limit, and allowing private health facilities (not just public) to perform abortions; this proposal was rejected by 88 percent of voters. Legge 194 has remained in place since, and its defenders note that the number of abortions has plummeted in Italy over that time. Indeed, its figures on abortion today are among the lowest in the world. But other factors must be considered, such as the more widespread availability of contraceptives and the morning-after pill. There’s also the undeniable fact that Italy’s population is growing older, far fewer women are becoming pregnant, and far fewer children are being born now than in the 1970s.

Legge 194 legislated three other important points: it established the role of judges in allowing abortions for underage women when the parents or legal guardians do not agree with the decision to abort; it mandated that women receive counseling in public health-care facilities regarding alternatives to abortion; and it protected conscientious objection by medical personnel opposed to abortion. This last point has been among the most debated provisions of the law since the time it was passed. In some southern regions of Italy, the percentage of medical personnel claiming conscientious objection ranges from 80 percent to 95 percent; in the North, it’s around 45 percent. This can make it very difficult for women to access abortion, according to progressives, who claim that as a result, unsafe “back-alley” abortions are on the rise.

If the passage of Legge 194 can be viewed as a response to Fascist-era penal codes, its place in Italian life must also be viewed in the context of the massive changes in Church-state relations in the latter part of the twentieth century. These include the Second Vatican Council’s call for a new relationship with secular states and respect for religious liberty of non-Catholics. For Italy, this meant updating the 1929 Concordat, with changes signed with the Holy See in 1984; revising family law regarding equality between the father and the mother; and, in October 1978, electing the first non-Italian pope in centuries, John Paul II. Passage of “The 194” and the 1981 referendum were decisive transitions for Italian society, and the second wake-up call for the Catholic Church in Italy—following the 1974 referendum allowing divorce—on the country’s secularization.

Legge 194 also brought Italy’s policy on abortion into line with those of other European countries. It did not liberalize abortion, nor did it create an individual or constitutional right to abortion, as Roe did in the United States. Rather, it established certain conditions under which abortion could not be punishable as a crime and set up mechanisms under which abortion would be handled within the public health-care system. The undergirding moral principle was not the will and agency of the pregnant woman, but a pregnant woman’s right to health—the idea being that both unsafe illegal abortion and legal abortion on demand violate that right.

When comparing Italy’s approach to abortion to that of the United States, all these factors must be kept in mind—the particulars of the legislation, the way it came into being, the lingering memories of fascism, and the role of the Catholic Church. The fact that Italy got to this point through parliamentary proceedings and a nationwide public referendum, and not via court interventions, is a critical difference. Further, even in this predominantly Catholic country, abortion never became the divisive and all-consuming political and cultural issue it did in the United States, because Italian politics is multi-party and consensus-driven—not two-party, winner-take-all. And while the Catholic hierarchy lamented Legge 194 and the referendum, and endorsed the Movement for Life, it never tried to mount the kind of culture war that U.S. bishops did.

Already by the 1970s, most Catholics and progressives in Italy agreed that abortion was a serious moral and social issue and needed to be discouraged and limited, but that it could be legislated thanks in part to Italians’ trust in the welfare state and a taxpayer-funded health-care system. The compromise, balancing freedom with moral concerns, was widely accepted. Even in the twenty years dominated by Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition beginning in the 1990s, abortion was never a significant part of its political platform. Today, the right-wing parties led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni care little about abortion, instead waging a culture war over the issue of immigration.

Legge 194 arose out of a broad compromise between Italian progressive and conservative Catholics, and between leftist-progressive forces and the establishment. There was mutual suspicion about libertarianism, as well as general agreement on the need to strengthen institutions like the national health-care system and to prevent crusading, mutually exclusive campaigns on the issue of abortion. It was a way to do away with Fascist-era legislation at a time when Italian democracy was at risk. American democracy faces its own risks today. But if that’s the only parallel, it seems unlikely that the United States will soon find its own way to consensus. 

 

 

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A Defining Conflict

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.

 

The 1850s were a rough time in American history. The historian James McPherson recounts the story of a jury that convicted a slave trader who had illegally imported slaves from Africa (the trade had been banned since 1808). The jury was subjected to such vicious public threats that they collectively issued a public recantation of their verdict. In it, they distanced themselves from the “pretended philanthropy and diseased mental aberration of ‘higher law’ fanatics.” The term “higher law” had become a common term used by radical abolitionists to justify their refusal to follow mandates like the Fugitive Slave Act. Obviously, the scare quotes were intended to suggest how skeptical these Southerners were toward any appeal to a higher law. And it wasn’t only Southerners who defined abolitionists as fanatics. In 1863, “Peace Democrats” in the North sought to strike a compromise with the South instead of, as they put it, causing further “bloodshed to gratify a religious fanaticism.” 

In the period between 1853 and 1863, it was not obvious that the position of radical abolitionists—that all slaveholding should be outlawed and that former slaves should be granted an equality of civil freedom—would ever prevail. Certainly, in the 1850s, this position was quite outside the mainstream. Lincoln even spent the first years of the Civil War insisting that his aim was not to end slavery or enact Black equality. Indeed, certain anti-slavery extremists like John Brown were constantly held up as proof of the violent nature of this religious fanaticism; lurid descriptions of what would happen if abolitionists had their way ratified the worst Southern fears. Gradually, the outrageous behavior of many pro-slavery fanatics, especially those zealous to expand slavery to the territories using any means necessary, nudged both politicians and ordinary citizens toward the abolitionists’ side. Still, it’s safe to say that the more common view of slavery was a kind of ambivalence. Most Americans certainly did not hold slaves, but their distaste for slavery stemmed as much from an idealization of the nobility of honest “free labor” and a resentment of the power exercised by Southerners in national politics as it did from any sense that slavery was wrong. Nor did many really know what would happen after slavery ended. Even among the slaveholding Founders, there was clearly an intention to manage a kind of gradual disappearance of slavery. But how, exactly? Would former slaves be sent back to Africa, as some thought? Most citizens of antebellum America, in the North as well as in the South, would not have endorsed racial equality. The pity of many white Americans was aroused by accounts of the inhumanity of slavery, like in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this pity was not always accompanied by respect for Black civic equality.

How, then, did a minority holding a view outside the mainstream and derided as “religious fanatics” within a divided and ambivalent culture finally win the day? And what exactly constituted “winning”? These are really the two questions that all opponents of abortion ought to be asking themselves in the wake of Dobbs. As Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “the history of any society is in key part the history of an extended conflict or set of conflicts,” most importantly about justice, but also inevitably about the moral reasoning of the society in general. The enslavement of Black people and the subsequent history of racial injustice is one such defining conflict about justice and natural rights; abortion has surely become another. We must not imagine that the conflict is of marginal importance because voters may now be more concerned about, say, inflation. The issue of slavery was not a central one in the minds of many ordinary people in the 1850s. But by then, there had already been decades of struggle between two groups of cultural elites for whom the issue had particular moral importance, and that struggle was only intensifying.

The enslavement of Black people and the subsequent history of racial injustice is one such defining conflict about justice and natural rights; abortion has surely become another.

There are more parallels between the antebellum conflict over slavery and the current conflict over abortion than people might realize. As with slavery then, abortion itself already appears to be in slow decline, but that fact has not dampened the debate. The position of activists on each side has hardened. Abortion advocates have increasingly turned away from an apologetic tone about “difficult choices” toward a confrontational demand for reproductive rights “without apology,” just as Southerners went from being content with accommodations of their “peculiar institution” to claiming their absolute right to their “property.” As with slavery, we are now facing a situation in which states have radically different legal regimes—and in which one kind of regime is morally repugnant to those affirming the other kind. This is not like a difference over income-tax rates or business regulations. Meanwhile, as with slavery in the 1850s, there’s a larger cultural ambivalence about abortion, one which is particularly apparent in purple states, just as it was then particularly apparent in “border states.” While there wasn’t a lot of doubt about slavery in either Vermont or South Carolina, it was a different story in Maryland or Tennessee. 

Finally, the most important parallel: like the nineteenth-century abolitionists, abortion abolitionists are ultimately right, even if theirs is an “inconvenient truth.” Modern embryology textbooks teach that a new organism begins at conception, one that is genetically distinct from either parent and whose development as a particular human is directed from within. With this knowledge of genetics and of fetal development, it is clearer than ever that attempts to draw a fundamental line at any stage in fetal development—there life is, but here it is not—are arbitrary, at least scientifically. Along these lines, Pope Francis famously analogized abortion to “hiring a hit man” to take care of a problem, a remark he repeated in the wake of Dobbs. Euphemisms like “reproductive justice” and dystopian scaremongering about a theocratic “Gilead” distract from what’s really going on in the specific act of abortion, just as the Southern evasions about “property rights” and scaremongering about the social chaos of freeing Blacks were meant to distract from the fundamental moral question: the incompatibility of “liberty and justice for all” with the practice of bondage and inequality for some.

Still, it is one thing to be morally right about a key question of human dignity; it is very much another thing to have a plan for what will happen when the laws change. Here we find another parallel with slavery, perhaps the one that should concern us most. Most Northerners, even Lincoln himself, were quite hazy on the question of what society might look like after slavery. Just as today’s polls show public ambivalence about particular cases of and restrictions on abortion, it seems that many Americans in the 1850s were uncomfortable with slavery and would have welcomed its disappearance, but most did not think that full civil equality of the races was desirable or even possible. That lack of clarity about what should happen after slavery still haunts American society, especially the descendants of those who were held in bondage.

A deep moral zealotry (on either side) about a complicated social problem can sabotage the best efforts to work gradually through its complexities.

While many of those who welcome Dobbs loudly (and earnestly!) call for large-scale assistance for pregnant women and mothers, the real test will come once it becomes clearer what America might look like with hundreds of thousands of new babies every year, babies whose mothers may not really want the child, babies whose mothers are often single women living in poverty. Further, there remains considerable evasion on the part of some pro-lifers about how such laws might actually be enforced without confirming the dystopian fantasies of pro-choicers. Add our broken health-care system and a wildly unequal school and childcare system that reinforces privilege and disadvantage, and one may begin to get a sense of the mountains pro-lifers will have to move in order to make good on their commitment to the dignity and value of every human life.

My hope is that the primary message of the Supreme Court in Dobbs—America, stop expecting the court to solve your intractable conflicts, and deal with them democratically in your legislatures—will lead to bipartisan attempts to address these serious problems, which affect the common good in ways that go well beyond their relationship to abortion. Moreover, I do believe that states can serve as good social laboratories for experiments in improving the core systems of our society. 

However, there is always the danger that a deep moral zealotry (on either side) about a complicated social problem can sabotage the best efforts to work gradually through its complexities. The Civil War did not in fact end “with malice toward none,” and the moral zeal of both racists and their adversaries persisted—and indeed, still persists, albeit in different guises. With both abortion and any kind of racial discrimination, the Catholic moral position is clear. But the way forward through a fragmented society and the fallen human condition is far less clear. More than anything else, we have to figure out ways to walk forward together. Moral clarity too often turns into a zealotry that would make this impossible: you don’t walk forward with a mortal enemy, you march against him. Our nation has been suffering from unhealed racial wounds—and inflicting plenty of new ones—ever since the Civil War ended, with the burden falling most heavily not on the abolitionists or the former slaveholders but on the former slaves themselves and their offspring. So too will it be for a generation of women and children unless the fifty-year movement for the abolition of abortion is now matched by a collective effort to forge an alternative social framework.

The adjective “historic” is overused, but it’s safe to say that Dobbs is historic. It is historic because it stands as a clear marker in an ongoing set of conflicts over who we are as a nation and over what our fundamental moral principles are. And yet history warns us that the real mountain to climb still lies ahead, as we struggle not to end something but to begin something new, a true culture of life—a culture where, in the words of St. Paul VI, “every life is a vocation.”

 

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The Power to Serve

If your key task as pope is to change the way authority is understood and used in the Catholic Church, you could do a lot worse than invite the cardinals to Rome and then leave them there to visit a town famous for its tomb of a pope who resigned. And once there, while wearing a hard hat in a wheelchair, to praise Celestine V’s example while pondering Jesus’ words that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).

Pope Francis’s visit to L’Aquila on August 28 was sandwiched between two gatherings of the nearly two-hundred-strong college of cardinals, the first time they had been summoned en bloc since 2015. The previous day, at the eighth consistory of his pontificate, Francis created twenty new members of the college, bestowing red hats and rings on metropolitan archbishops and Roman curial heads but many more on pastors from peripheral places like Manaus, Ekwulobia, Ulaanbaatar, Hyderabad, Wa, and Dili. In the case of Ulaanbaatar, the new cardinal is Giorgio Marengo, a forty-eighty-year-old apostolic prefect shepherding just 1,500 Catholics—in numerical terms, a small parish—while Anthony Poola of Hyderabad is the Church’s first Dalit (as the caste-less, former “untouchables” are known) cardinal.

These appointments are teaching moments. God’s style, Francis told the cardinals at the consistory in St. Peter’s, is to be equally at home on a grand, universal level, while at the same time caring for the little things and little ones, who are great in God’s sight. He gave them the example of Cardinal Casaroli, St. John XXIII’s famous secretary of state, who combined global diplomacy with weekly pastoral visits to Rome’s youth prison. The same approach—unafraid of the center but attentive to the margins—was behind the pope’s red-hat selections.

In talking of God’s style of mercy and tenderness, Francis had a deeper point to make. You always know when Jesus is present, he said, because of “the mild kind of fire” he brings; that’s how the disciples knew him even when they couldn’t see who it was. “There exists no other way to accomplish God’s will than to take on the strength of the humble” he said in L’Aquila the next morning. Humility, he explained, means recognizing the true divine source of power and our own poverty in response, rather than basing our worth on the position we hold. So Dante in the Divine Comedy was wrong to describe Celestine V as “the one who made a great refusal” by resigning in 1294 after only five months as pope to return to his life as a hermit. In fact, Francis said, “Celestine V was not a man who said ‘no,’ but a man who said ‘yes’”—yes to authority as humble service. And thus he was truly free, for “there was no logic or power that was able to imprison or control him.”

 

The following two days in Rome were dedicated to that proposition of authority as humble service. Some 197 cardinals—132 of them young enough to vote at a papal conclave—assembled in the synod hall to consider Francis’s new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), which was promulgated in June after long years of drafting, consultation, and implementation. Some of the cardinals had grumbled about this: why gather us to discuss a fait accompli? But the purpose was not to ask the cardinals to approve Praedicate (which they overwhelmingly did) but instead to reflect on its implications—not only for the Curia, but also for the wider Church. The pope had called them to Rome in the dog days of August to understand that this was not just about the what, but the how.

I have no idea if Francis had in mind Yves Congar’s pungent little book Power and Poverty in the Church, first published in English in 1964, but this was a good text to look at during the meeting of cardinals. For in it Congar shows Jesus teaching his disciples that their ministry has nothing to do with any merit on their part, but is the power of God flowing from him out through them. Hence Francis’s message to the cardinals as he opened the meeting: to be a cardinal was not a privilege but a responsibility, one that called for a “style that witnesses to the Gospel.” The power handed to the Church—as Jesus showed by ultimate example—is given not to dominate, nor to exact service, but to serve the needs of others, to seek their salvation.

Jesus overturned the concept of authority, and it was time for the Church to get back to the Gospel understanding.

God, who is love, is the source of that power of service, and Jesus’s followers take part in it: the mission of loving service cascades, as it were, from the Father to the incarnate Son, and from Jesus to the apostles and the whole Church. Thus, St. Paul was adamant that his apostolic authority had nothing to do with any ability or merit on his part, but on the spiritual gifts he had received (not earned); and that his ambition was to be like Jesus, who did not grab for himself the rights conferred by “equality with God” but served and died as a slave, raised and given glory by the Father.

Jesus, in short, overturned the concept of authority, and it was time for the Church to get back to the Gospel understanding. In Augustine’s formula, the power in the Church is ministerium rather than potestas. The authority is real, as is the power it grants: to cast out devils, to teach about God, to bind and loose, and so on. But, firstly, it is always vicarious—that is, it is a participation in a power that comes from God. The proper response of ministers is therefore humility, for they are merely vessels of this authority, not its source. Secondly, as Francis said in his inaugural homily as pope: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service and that the pope, too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross.” The “authentic” power conferred on St. Peter is a power to serve: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” As Congar puts it, the faithful “are our masters, since we are their servants,” for “their welfare must decide how our effort shall be applied.”

This Gospel concept of power has seldom survived unscathed in the history of the Church. Congar’s essay sketches its development in the early “synodal” era of martyrs and monks, its weakening under Constantine when Church offices were given temporal power, and its corruption in the eleventh century. The new legalism that arose then can be seen, says Congar, “in the importance attached to the formal validity of authority, to its possession of an actual title in law.” Over time, this legalism meant that the ecclesia ceased to be the body of the faithful possessed of charismatic authority, and became identified with clergy, the hierarchy, and the pope. As the current synod reports show, this is still the image of the Church that Catholics have, even fifty years after the Second Vatican Council—as an object outside them, rather than the body to which they belong.

This is what Francis has set out to change in the curial reforms of Praedicate, in his call for a synodal Church, and in the past nine years of teaching and example. The background to this reform is what he calls the cambio de época, the change of era, which Congar foresaw in his little book as a return to a “pre-Constantinian situation in a pagan world.” As Congar described it: “while we lose nothing of value acquired in the course of history, we shall recover wholly evangelical ways of exercising authority in the new world in which God calls us to serve him.”

 

The cardinals gathered in the synod hall are aware of the transformation captured in Praedicate, and they like it. Of course, the reform of the Curia is a work in progress. It still takes too long to reply to letters. Translations of major documents can be too slow. Candidates need to be better examined for curial roles. But on the big-picture reform, the cardinals are overwhelmingly supportive of what Francis has sought to do with the mandate they gave him nine years ago.

They like Praedicate’s emphasis on evangelization through service and on the new synodal spirit that permeates the Curia’s culture. They like that the evangelization, doctrine, and charity dicasteries now come first. They are glad that Francis has addressed the Church’s sex-abuse and finance scandals not just by imposing new laws and regulatory systems, but above all by tackling the deeper spiritual corruption at their root. They see the curial reforms as restoring trust in the Church’s mission. Some even say that the Roman Curia is now an example to local Churches rather than an obstacle to evangelization.

The Curia is at the service of both the pope and the bishops, not an intermediary wedged between them.

And what they appreciate most of all is the shift in how bishops are treated on their ad limina visits, when the bishops of a given country or region travel en bloc to Rome. Where once they were given marching orders or scolded by imperious curial officials, there is now fraternal dialogue with the dicasteries. Experiences are shared. Everyone listens. There is welcome and respect. The Curia is at the service of both the pope and the bishops, not an intermediary wedged between them. One cardinal spoke of how curial officials now “look us in the eye” and how the language of their letters is softer, more pastoral, more respectful.

But on the hot-button issue in the cardinals’ two-day meeting—the opening of the Curia to lay leadership—there is much that still needs to be thought through. Praedicate states that, because the Curia’s authority is received directly from the Roman Pontiff, “any member of the faithful can preside over a Dicastery or Office.” Clericalists have argued that, because the debate over the origin of authority in the Church—does it flow from the sacrament of ordination, or directly from canonical mission?—is still unresolved, the status quo must prevail: authority in principle rests with the ordained. But Praedicate goes the other way: lay people can in principle head any office, though there are reasons why some offices will still be reserved for the clergy. For Cardinals Marcello Semeraro and Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the brains behind the new apostolic constitution, while the theological-ecclesiological debate may continue for a long time to come, in practice the issue has already been resolved. When a lay judge on a marriage tribunal decrees the annulment of a marriage, for example, does anyone doubt that she is exercising an act of jurisdiction, one delegated to her by a bishop?

Marc Ouellet, who is due to retire soon as prefect of the bishops’ dicastery, reminded the cardinals that the power of governance in the Church is firstly the fruit of spiritual charisms—which, as Congar shows, is how the pre-Constantinian Church understood it. As Ouellet explained in an important article in L’Osservatore Romano, ordination confers a specifically Christological authority expressed in the power of the sacraments and the hierarchical structure of the Church. But the pope can entrust a layperson or a religious with a canonical mission of curial leadership without in any way undermining that structure, and it is right that he should. The alternative—to restrict governance to those with ordinary potestas of sacred orders—would be to slide back into the juridical mindset of the past and resist the gifts the Spirit is pouring out on the Church.

The cardinals mostly embrace the fact that in the future more laypeople will take on leadership roles in Rome, as they already have under Francis. Yet the transition will not be simple. Praedicate restricts senior positions in the Vatican to a five-year term, renewable only once, in order to discourage careerism and to reassure bishops of local dioceses that if they send good priests to Rome, they can be confident they’ll get them back. But could a layperson with a family really be expected to leave his or her career in Asia or Latin America for an appointment in Rome that lasts just five or ten years? But if an exception were made for laypeople, would that make them more susceptible to careerism? And wouldn’t short-term contracts with high rewards, which one often sees in the business world, “corporatize” the Vatican, derailing the culture of service Francis has been trying to instill? After all, worldly laypeople can be just as appallingly clericalist as the clergy.

The cardinals want more clarity about which roles require orders and which do not. All seem to agree that the Dicastery for Communications (currently the only one whose prefect is lay) and the Secretariat for the Economy (currently headed by a Jesuit) can happily be headed by the non-ordained, but not the dicasteries for the clergy, bishops, doctrine of the faith, or divine worship. Yet all senior Vatican roles require being steeped in the sensus ecclesiae, and even “technical” offices such as finances and communications touch on questions of doctrine. A prefect of a dicastery with good technical background but poor theology and ecclesiology would hardly advance the cause of lay leadership.

Hence the concern among cardinals that laypeople who work in the Vatican have the good of the Church at heart and are properly formed. Choosing the right people will demand careful discernment. As Francis pointed out at the start of the meeting, Praedicate does not exempt anyone from the need for discernment, which is the “ordinary means” by which the Church carries out its mission.

 

As they spilled forth from the synod hall into the basilica for the final Mass, the cardinals praised the meeting as authentically “synodal,” a time of free dialogue and listening. They want more of these meetings, and they will need them. It isn’t happening now, or even soon, but a papal transition is on the horizon: now the cardinals must learn to discern as a body.

Francis has made clear, over and over, that he will not hesitate to follow the examples of Celestine V and Benedict XVI in handing over the fisherman’s keys. If authority in the Church is rooted in charism, rather than the privileges of office, then all must be permanently open to moving on to the next mission—even the pope.

“They address us as ‘Your Eminence,’” Francis told the 190-odd cardinals in his homily. “There is some truth in this, but there is also much deception.” The deception, of course, is to suggest or believe that somehow a cardinal is made eminent by the authority he has been given, when he ought to be humbled by the eminence of sharing Jesus’ mission. As the cardinals sat in mitered rows to his left in the splendor of St. Peter’s, Francis warned them against the worldliness of the Father of Lies who, step by step, “takes away your strength, takes away your hope, prevents you from seeing the gaze of Jesus who calls us by name and sends us out.”

A minister of the Church, he went on, is one who “loves the Church and stands at the service of her mission wherever and however the Holy Spirit may choose.” To minister is to be awestruck—to experience stupore, amazement—not just at the plan of salvation itself, “but at the even more amazing fact that God calls us to share in this plan.” In the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, it turns out, you lose strength by claiming dominium, yet are filled with wonder at the power of ministerium that flows through those who share in Christ’s mission. By the same token, the willingness to surrender office for the sake of the mission does not diminish authority but confirms it, for all authority in the Church participates in God’s own loving service of humanity through the kenosis of his own Son.

To see this loving service as somehow reducing “power”—as rendering it weak or ineffective—is to get it completely wrong. This is the power of God; it is the true power that moves the heavens and the earth. Francis’s curial reforms remind us that true authority is ultimately moral and spiritual. As he sheds ever more of the Vatican’s pomp—not just the imperial bling, but the imperious hauteur—the Curia no longer speaks with a stern authoritarian voice, but with the true authority of those who serve with God’s own ministerium. Meanwhile the pope himself, now often seen in a wheelchair because of a torn ligament, has become ever more quasi unus ex illis—among us as one of us. Yet his authority has never been greater than now, when he stands ready to give it away.

The High Price of Dobbs

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a symposium titled “Abortion after Dobbs.” We asked seven Commonweal contributors, from various backgrounds and with various views, to discuss what the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to mean for abortion law, American politics, and the creation of a “culture of life” worthy of the name.

 

Dobbs leaves us with two fundamental questions: What is a person? And who should decide? The answer to the first question seems to me straightforward. At no point in the first and second trimesters, nor in the third, when the mother’s life or health is at stake, does the fetus—sans thoughts, sans emotions, sans experiences, sans everything—have any rights that override those of the woman of whose body it is merely an infinitesimal part during the time when more than 90 percent of abortions currently take place. Unlike its host, it is a potential person, not an actual person; a future person, not a present one. That millions of Americans think differently is a source of puzzlement and distress to me, as well as, I hope, humility. But with all the good will I can muster, I’m unable to find any plausibility in their view.

Suppose a state legislature outlawed sex-reassignment surgeries, judging them unnatural and offensive to God. The Supreme Court would (probably) declare that law unconstitutional. Since the Constitution does not expressly mention sex-change operations, there can be no constitutional right to one. Instead, the court would, or should, rule that a state legislature is not allowed to legislate its religious beliefs, even if they are the beliefs of a majority of the state’s citizens.

Now, what are the beliefs on the basis of which a legislature would likely outlaw abortion? Presumably that the fetus is a human person, entitled to the state’s protection. What reason could they give for that conclusion? Crucially, they cannot say that a fetus has a soul. That is a religious belief. It is held almost exclusively by religious persons and defended almost exclusively with religious reasons. They could say that from conception the fetus is a full human being, with a range of human attributes. But they would have to stipulate that belief and then refuse to hear expert witnesses, most of whom would rebut it. They could claim that the fetus contains a human genome, and that anything with a human genome is entitled to be considered human and protected by the state. But every cell in the human body—every hair, every fingernail, every bead of sweat—contains a human genome, which is just a complete set of human DNA. Of course, unlike those tissues, the embryo (its proper name during most of the first trimester) will, with a great deal of effort, pain, and sometimes danger on the part of its host, become viable. Virtually no one argues that it deserves no protection once it is viable—at twenty-four to twenty-eight weeks. But by then, there is virtually nothing to protect it from. Fewer than 1 percent of abortions take place after viability.

Is there really any doubt that an abortion ban would be a religious imposition? Among the nonreligious, there is very little support for restricting abortion. A majority of Americans belonging to each of the major religions, excepting Mormons and Evangelical Protestants, would allow abortion in some or all cases. As far as I know, Mormons haven’t been active in opposing Roe. The only two groups who have been notably active are Evangelical Protestants and Catholics, especially the Catholic hierarchy. The bishops have maintained a steady opposition since 1973, but with little effect, so they deserve only a modest share of the blame for Dobbs.

Virtually no one argues that it deserves no protection once it is viable—at twenty-four to twenty-eight weeks. But by then, there is virtually nothing to protect it from.

That leaves Evangelicals. I suggest they have made a devil’s bargain. The Evangelical movement has regularly provided the margin of victory for a radical party that has undermined democracy with gerrymandering and voter restriction, allowed the number of guns in the country to swell to lunatic proportions, voted its rich patrons a $1.5 trillion tax cut while one in six American children lives in poverty, and, with almost incomprehensible irresponsibility, has prevented serious government action to reduce carbon emissions, contemptuously disregarding biblical (and papal) admonitions to stewardship of the Earth. Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly (85 percent) to place supreme political power in the hands of a sociopath and sexual predator, who took a wrecking ball to the executive branch and ended his term with a treasonous refusal to hand over power peacefully to his successor. Evangelicals inflicted all this misgovernment and disgrace on their fellow Americans solely in order to overturn Roe v. Wade. Quite possibly, their fellow Americans will not thank them for it.

Very few Americans—only 25 percent, the lowest level ever recorded—express confidence in the current Supreme Court. That is understandable. Five of the six conservative justices were appointed by presidents who had not won the popular vote. The egregious cheat by which Sen. Mitch McConnell stole a seat from the Democrats and, four years later, in identical circumstances, rammed through a Republican nominee, was a national scandal. The three most recent nominees were pressed for their opinion of Roe; each replied that they considered it “settled law” and then voted to repeal it at the first opportunity. Justice Clarence Thomas has so far refused to recuse himself from cases related to the insurrection on January 6, despite his wife’s unflagging efforts to further the “Stop the Steal” canard. Perhaps Thomas will offer the same elegant reply to critics of this refusal that Justice Antonin Scalia offered to critics of Bush v. Gore: “Get over it.”

Governing without a majority has become a Republican specialty. Early in this century, Republicans forged a new strategy. They recognized that, for all its utility, the politics of resentment could not guarantee them a lasting majority. They were, after all, and had always been, the party of the rich. So they conceived the idea of launching an electoral blitz at the state level in the 2010 elections, which, if successful, would allow them control of the decennial redistricting process. The Democratic Party was Washington-centric and uninterested in local politics, so the Republicans were wildly successful. They then hired armies of computer consultants and gerrymandered every state they controlled within an inch of its life. Of course, they did not invent gerrymandering, but they brought it to a level that was to previous Democratic efforts as World Cup play is to ten-year-olds on a back street.

As a result, a fair number of states have a majority of registered Democratic voters but a majority of Republican state and Congressional legislators, or else a considerable disproportion between the size of the Republican majority of voters in a state and the size of the state legislature’s Republican majority. In 2018, Democrats won 54 percent of the statewide vote in Pennsylvania but only 45 percent of seats in the legislature. In Michigan, Democrats won 53 percent of the vote and 47 percent of the seats. In North Carolina, Democrats won 51 percent of the vote but only 45 percent of the seats. In Wisconsin, Democrats won 54 percent of the vote but only 36 percent of the seats. In Texas, party affiliation is 40 percent Democratic, 39 percent Republican, but Republicans have an 18–13 majority in the state senate, an 82–67 majority in the state legislature, and a 25–11 majority in the state’s Congressional delegation. There are many such examples. And Texas, which tried to turn its citizens into anti-abortion bounty hunters, offers a characteristic example of radical Republicans’ exquisite deference to the voice of the people. In May 2022, 78 percent of Texans thought abortion should be legal in some circumstances (39 percent in all circumstances), 28 percent only in cases of rape or incest, and just 15 percent thought it should never be legal—that is, agreed with their elected representatives. Nonetheless, it is a foregone conclusion that after Dobbs, Texas will enforce a maximally restrictive law against abortion.

Dobbs proclaims that since “the Constitution makes no express reference to the right to obtain an abortion…the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” It is not surprising that the court took no notice of the crisis of democratic legitimacy produced by unscrupulous Republican partisanship, since the court has largely enabled it. Shelby County v. Holder barred the Federal Election Commission from overseeing state election laws, and Citizens United—the mother and father of all anti-democratic Supreme Court decisions—removed all limits on political spending. The Constitution makes no express reference to gerrymandering or to unlimited campaign contributions, but this did not prompt the court to return the authority to regulate these things to the people and their elected representatives. Nor did the court trust the democratic process to regulate gun mayhem (District of Columbia v. Heller, NYSRPA v. Bruen) or climate chaos (West Virginia v. EPA). Dobbs is undeniably a tainted victory.

How would a genuinely democratic polity address constitutional controversies? Undoubtedly, “the people and their elected representatives” are the ultimate court of appeal, notwithstanding the Founders’ well-known misgivings about our wisdom and character. And even though the Constitution makes no express reference to “judicial review,” the deliberations of nine wise and learned men and women do sometimes supply essential discriminations and clarifications and model moral and political reasoning for the rest of us.

Our political system is more accurately described as a plutocracy than a democracy, and the understandable attitude of more and more citizens is a sullen passivity, occasionally erupting into unreasoning rage.

The problem is that American government is not sufficiently accountable. Congress has generally been, and the Supreme Court has nearly always been, to the right of public opinion. The traditional remedy—voting the scoundrels out—does not work if only scoundrels have the resources to sponsor, lobby, and (after their term in office) employ politicians, initiate complex lawsuits, or saturate the media with their message. Campaigns for constitutional amendments and ballot referenda are expensive, often prohibitively so. Our political media are commercial enterprises, not civic ones. Our political system is more accurately described as a plutocracy than a democracy, and the understandable attitude of more and more citizens is a sullen passivity, occasionally erupting into unreasoning rage. And this Supreme Court’s only response has been to double down, announcing after two hundred years its discovery that the Founders considered money to be the equivalent of free speech.

Dobbs makes one cogent criticism of Roe and some not-so-cogent ones. One of the not-so-cogent criticisms has to do with Roe’s trimester scheme. That approach, which even Justice Blackmun conceded was “arbitrary,” nonetheless made practical sense. It gradually shifted authority over the abortion decision from the woman and her doctor to the state, which had a gradually increasing rational, nonreligious basis for intervening as the pregnancy proceeded. Dobbs could result in a dozen different schemes, any or all of them equally arbitrary.

Not very cogently, Justice Alito writes: “Far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have inflamed debate and deepened division.” But Roe and Casey did not force anyone to do anything, whereas Dobbs will force tens of thousands of women to go into debt or leave their state or risk their health or risk criminal prosecution or bear unwanted children. (Or, of course, forgo sex—not all of it extramarital.) For Dobbs, women are just one party in an “inflamed debate,” with nothing more at stake than legislators or other citizens, which may explain the opinion’s curiously tone-deaf remark: “The regulation of abortion is not a sex-based classification.” There is undoubtedly a technical meaning of “sex-based classification” that makes this sentence technically correct. But the evil of forced pregnancy is very great, and it is entirely sex-based.

Dobbs’s cogent criticism—however hypocritical in view of this court’s own practice—is that the court should normally defer to the people and their representatives, even if it thinks them mistaken. That is what we have—or wish we had—a democracy for.

 

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