The year I was an undergraduate at Georgetown University, the Supreme Court rendered its decision on Roe v. Wade. Decades later, the basic questions remain of how religion and religious freedom play out in an increasingly diverse society. How do those of us who try to practice the principles of Georgetown’s Jesuit traditions navigate the intersection of the secular and spiritual worlds?
Roe provides a window into that broader topic. Many readers will already have determined their positions, which may color their reading of this piece. Moreover, the mere citation of that landmark case can be enough to incite heated exchanges.
I am an old, straight, Christian, white male. Accordingly, some will be outraged that I dare opine and others dismayed that I do not share their certitude. I hope to disappoint and annoy those with intractable positions on the extremes by suggesting thoughtfulness on something I suspect many beyond myself find not reducible to simple answers.
Many claim that their objections to abortion flow from religious beliefs protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion. However, the amendment was ratified at a time when the enfranchised population was overwhelmingly white, male and Christian. Balancing the doctrines of a variety of religious teachings in a multicultural nation was not on the agenda and those who drafted the amendment could not have anticipated the moral issues created by advances in medicine.
A world not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution has emerged with a paradigm shift in the mid-20th century evinced by the civil rights movement. School prayer was banned and the old blue laws prohibiting commercial activities on Sundays — state-mandated “resting on the Lord’s day” — were overturned.
Perceptions of the role of women have also evolved. Coverture, the legal principle that the rights of women were subsumed by their husbands, had begun to be abolished beginning in the 19th century. The suffragist and feminist movements furthered the emancipation of women in the political and economic spheres. Roe was decided in a cultural atmosphere that sought to expand individual freedom at the expense of traditional cultural norms. Women were granted control over their bodies.
A backlash began almost immediately after Roe, including from those who genuinely felt that this decision was state-sanctioned murder. Years later, the fight continues over what is private and what demands society’s condemnation.
The ramifications for those who genuinely find certain behaviors abhorrent encompass many issues in public policy, not just abortion. If U.S. statutes only conform to Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, though, that renders this country a theocracy. Conversely, there are norms of morality that transcend religion that can and must be codified. The question then becomes who decides which norms and what happens when one faith’s religious beliefs clash with those of another.
Anyone who is not, at times, conflicted regarding their beliefs is not a member of the faithful — they are a cultist. Anyone who does not examine their political positions is an ideologue. Unfortunately, the conversation has been captured by the cultists and ideologues, leaving no room for those of us who are sincerely troubled and uncertain. We must regain our voices.
Those who strive to be people of conscience should not feel obliged to accept false choices foisted on us by absolutists. The issue of abortion is a multifaceted problem laden with costs, irrespective of how we choose. Before reaching a conclusion, we must pause, reflect, and recognize that there may never be clear answers.
I don’t pretend to have a resolution to the abortion issue; I can only offer an observation.
Raymond W. Dillon Jr. graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. A Hoya Looks Back runs online every other Tuesday.