Sometimes, you sit perfectly still – and history intersects before your eyes, like watching two birds in flight discover a birdfeeder, two lives ignite with a timeless truth, some distant written word – planted like a seed – bloom and flower in time, changing everything around it. That just happened.
Pouring through old books, a passion that occasionally overcomes me, I stumbled upon a little-known volume – “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” Curious how that book came to be, first published as an essay in 1983, I opened it.
Funny, I thought, how our nation has struggled painfully with issues of conscience since our founding, been unusually self-critical, each generation preoccupied with bringing ideals to life, pointing out how life conspires to frustrate “heaven on earth,” how human nature must constantly be rallied to the right.
“In the beginning,” to borrow a phrase, we were a nation of profound idealists and inglorious compromisers, knowing we wanted a nation built on individual liberty, limited government, equal opportunity, and yet dragged down by the ignominious institution, then a global plague, of slavery.
Decades on – fighting within our ranks for all kinds of ideals, we came to a terrible impasse on that issue, and suffered a wrenching civil war. We then recommitted ourselves to a higher road, with the 13th and 14th Amendments, outlawing slavery and applying 5th Amendment guarantees of “due process” and “equal protection” to the States.
Later, the 19th Amendment gave women the vote, as Title 9 half a century later gave girls the right to equality in sports and academics, triggering an updraft in everything from professions to Olympics.
With ebbs and flows, we continue to believe – unlike most countries – that we are held together by a common understanding. What understanding? That liberty, equality, justice, fidelity to our Bill of Rights, and a sound moral compass matter – which we are at risk of losing – center us and always should.
True, we get off track sometimes – and there is a strong argument we are way off right now. Instead of being judged – as Martin Luther King hoped – by “the content of our character” not “the color of our skin,” we are somehow teaching racism under the rubric of “Critical Race Theory,” redefining boys and girls, dishonoring law, science, precedent, and conscience.
But the nation’s historic identity is built on conscience, taking the hard road because it is hard, choosing endurance, self-denial, self-discipline, and self-effacing action – because that empowers us. By contrast, Roe v. Wade, found a “right” to abort a baby in the 14th Amendment, with no historic basis for imputing it.
Then, in another show of disrespect for institutions, the draft opinion reversing Roe was, returning the right to end a sentient child’s life to the States, was leaked. But this is where that intersection of history comes in.
Half a century ago, one of the most powerful arguments for reversing Roe was – that little book. Some of the arguments now well-known were first trumpeted there. As this small volume set forth, some decisions impugn our moral fiber, conscience, and “the conscience of the nation.” Roe did. Political expediency wire-brushed our national conscience.
Now, in a thoughtful act of judicial review, much like the review that reversed treating people as “separate but equal,” the Dobbs case appears likely to reset the moral dial to respect for life.
The Kicker: The courage to question a bad legal decision, the fortitude required to set arguments out with clarity, imagine a “someday” national rethink and reversal, is rare. That is why the little volume penned just after Roe, published in a journal called Human Life Review, was so important. It was the first time a person of the writer’s status, influence, and impact had penned such an argument – been so bold.
As the author noted: “Abortion concerns not just the unborn child, but every one of us. The English poet, John Donne, wrote: ‘… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Arguments found in the volume, show up in the draft opinion. “Abortion presents a profound moral issue …,” “Constitution makes no mention of abortion…,” and “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” Yes, these are now standard fare – but early courage made them so.
Looking back, rereading the little book which asks we ponder again “the conscience of the nation” through the lens of abortion, one can only imagine that the book had a lasting impact.
So, who penned that volume? Who helped start the snowball to reverse Roe? What major national figure calmly argued God alone knows life – stakes high, we cannot make a mistake.
“We will never recognize the true value in our own lives until we affirm the value in the lives of others … [as] Malcolm Muggeridge says: ‘… however low it flickers or fiercely burns, it is still a Divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives ever so humane and enlightened.’”
Who ended it this way? “There is no cause more important for preserving [America’s] freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.”
Who wrote “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation”? A leader without whom Dobbs might not be about to issue, America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan. Yes, distant words, planted like seeds, sometimes bloom and flower, changing everything.
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