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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Chapter Two

Paragraph Nine


Roe, Doe, and Casey

The bishops make reference here to two key Supreme Court decisions that are responsible for the continued legality of the abortion procedure: Roe vs. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992).

Most Americans still do not know what Roe vs. Wade enacted, namely, that abortion would be legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy. The Court held that in the last three months of pregnancy, a state could -- but did not have to -- prohibit abortion in cases where it was not necessary for the woman's health. In cases where health did require abortion, however, the state could not prohibit abortion even in the final days before birth. Here it must be noted that Roe vs. Wade was accompanied by another decision, Doe vs. Bolton, issued on the same day. The Court indicated that the two decisions were to be read together. Doe defined "health" to include "all factors - physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age - relevant to the wellbeing of the patient." Since abortion cannot be banned by a state when it is needed for "health," and since "health" is so broadly defined, the effect of the two Supreme Court decisions of January 22, 1973 was to initiate a policy of abortion on demand.

The American people have never accepted such a policy. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans reject abortion for the reasons it is usually performed -- reasons that have nothing to do with medical needs of the mother or child.

It should be noted that Roe vs. Wade never denied the humanity of the unborn child. Some people think that because the court concluded (albeit wrongly) that the unborn child is not human, it therefore felt free to authorize the killing of the unborn. But the court did not say that. If the court had said that, at least they would have maintained a basic moral principle, which is that no government has the authority to destroy innocent life. But the Court didn't do that. As to the question of whether this unborn child is in fact a new human life the Court said, in effect, "We don't know and it's not up to us to say." Then on the same page of the decision they declared that this unborn child is not a person under the Constitution. The problem, then is that the Court began to separate the concept of "human being" from "human person." And in separating a human life from the protections of the Constitution, the Court assumed to itself a new kind of authority, namely, we can decide that some human lives don't have to be protected.

This is the sense in which, as this paragraph of the document asserts, Roe has poisoned our entire legal and political system. It has, in fact, abandoned the founding principles of America and of all civilization. Mother Theresa, in her 1994 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, summarized the problem by asking, "If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?"

In 1992, the Supreme Court came close to overturning Roe, but did not do so. The Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, regarding various regulations on abortion enacted in the state of Pennsylvania, upheld the right of the state to regulate the procedure in various ways. The decision also modified the reasons for the legality of abortion, rejecting much of the reasoning of Roe vs. Wade but reaffirming its "central holding" that "a State may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability." But the basis for allowing the woman that decision shifted in Casey from "privacy" to "liberty." In fact, a famous line in the Casey decision, that has come to be known as the "mystery clause," continues to poison our legal system. The Court declared, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." This is, of course, fundamentally at odds with the view of life taken by our Founding Fathers and by the Christian Gospel, namely, that there is an objective truth about the meaning of life and the universe, and that this truth flows from the God who made both.

Signs of Hope

Even as we suffer from the effects of these Supreme Court decisions, however, we see the victory of truth unfolding. The original plaintiffs, the "Jane Roe" of Roe vs. Wade and the "Mary Doe" of Doe vs. Bolton are, today, working to overturn those decisions. They are both pro-life and have repudiated their role in making abortion legal. Sandra Cano, who was "Mary Doe," never even wanted an abortion. She simply wanted her children back from foster care. Pro-abortion attorneys turned it into an abortion case. Norma McCorvey, who was "Jane Roe," underwent several conversions to the pro-life position and is now a practicing pro-life Catholic who heads up her own ministry called "Crossing Over Ministries."

Discussion Questions

What policy did the Roe vs. Wade decision establish regarding abortion?

How did the Casey decision justify continuing the policy of Roe vs. Wade?

Why is it not good for our society to ignore the effects of these court decisions?

Further reading

Norma McCorvey, with Gary Thomas, Won by Love (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997).

Norma McCorvey, with Fr. Frank Pavone, My Journey into the Catholic Church (New York: Priests for Life, 1999)

Sybil Fletcher Lash, Supreme Deception (The story of Sandra Cano) (Lawrenceville, GA: Sentinel Productions, 2002)

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