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January, 1998

Press On!

by Gov. Robert P. Casey

Recently, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) announced on national television that a majority of the members of the United States Senate are now pro-life. I believe all the signs point inexorably to a future in which the unborn child will be protected by law. But such an outcome is neither automatic nor inevitable. We must make it happen. We can begin by supporting legislation which would ban all second and third trimester abortions. The status quo is unacceptable.

On Mar. 11, 1993, I spoke on the Roe decision in the courthouse in St. Louis in which the Dred Scott case had been heard. What follows is an excerpt from my remarks.

If democratic government depends on any one central idea, it's that raw power alone, laws that flout those permanent principles, cannot command our respect. Our obedience, yes. Our allegiance, no.

Alexander Hamilton put it this way: "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." Even the more secular-minded Thomas Jefferson agreed: The "only firm basis" of freedom, he wrote, is "a conviction in the minds of people that their liberties are the gift of God."

American history has had its dark moments, but only twice has this principle been radically betrayed. Only twice has mortal power, using the instrument of the law itself, sought to exclude an entire class of people from their most sacred human rights.

This place in which we meet today marks the first time.

One hundred and thirty-six years ago, a human being was declared a piece of property, literally led off in chains as people of good conscience sat paralyzed by a ruling of the court.

The other time was Jan. 22, 1973. An entire class of human beings was excluded from the protection of the state, their fate declared a "private" matter. That "Sunbeam" Hamilton envisioned, the Creator's signature on each new life, was deflected by human hands. No one has ever described what happened more concisely than Justice Byron White in his dissent. It was an act of "raw judicial power" - power stripped of all moral and constitutional authority.

Roe v. Wade was not, then, one more natural adaptation in our constitutional evolution. It was not like Brown v. Board of Education, a refinement extending law and liberty to an excluded class. Just the opposite: It was an abrupt mutation, a defiance of all precedent, a disjuncture of law and authority.

Where we used to think of law as above politics, in Roe law and politics became indistinguishable. How strange it is to hear abortion now defended in the name of "consensus." Roe itself, the product of a contrived and fraudulent test case, was a judicial decree overruling a consensus expressed in the laws of most states. It arose not from the wisdom of the ages or from the voice of the people, but from the ideology of the day and the will of a determined minority. It compels us to ignore the consensus of mankind about the treatment of the unborn. It commands us to disregard the clearest of Commandments. After 20 long years, the people of the United States have refused to heed that command.

Roe v. Wade is a law we must observe but never honor. In Hamilton's phrase, it's a piece of "parchment," a musty record bearing raw coercive power and devoid of moral authority. It has done its harm and will do much more. But those who say we must learn to live with it still don't get it. Ultimately, Roe cannot survive alongside our enduring, unshakable sense of justice. It is no more permanent than any other act of human arrogance. It is no more unchangeable than the laws which sent Dred Scott back to his master.

This has been the generation of what Malcolm Muggeridge called "the humane holocaust." The loss can never be recovered. Indeed, it can't even be calculated. Not even the familiar statistic - 1.6 million a year - begins to express the enormity of it. One person's life touches so many others. How can you measure the void left when so many people aren't even permitted to live among us?

The best we can do is change what can be changed, and, most importantly, stay the course.

And there is no need to wait for some political consensus to form. That consensus is here, and it grows every time someone looks for the first time at a sonogram. It needs only leaders - prudent, patient leaders. It doesn't need apologists to soothe us into inaction. It needs statesmen who will work for change - change here and now.

Press on!

The late Robert P. Casey, a Democrat, served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995.


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