After Dobbs: The End of the Beginning

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / James McNellis

This decision, long awaited from the Court, in the Dobbs case, can be appreciated—and savored—as a resounding first step. In Churchill’s line, we might say that we are only at “the end of the beginning now” in dealing with the turbulence that abortion has imparted to our political life for the past 50 years. That turbulence promises to rise now to new levels of enmity, until our people can regain some moral clarity on the taking of innocent life in the womb. But something good was done now, and we take the analogy here from the Emancipation Proclamation: It freed only the slaves held in States at war with the national government; it did not free States held in border states such as Delaware. And yet it became clear that it was animated by an anti-slavery impulse, and that’s how it came to be understood. In the same way, this decision will be seen as a decision affirming life and rejecting death as a rival good to life.  

And it will be seen in that way even as abortions proceed at a massive level, with all of the legal restraints removed in the Blue States. Our disappointment here mirrors that of people on the other side. They are feeling dispossessed, because they thought they bore nothing less than a constitutional right, which does not go in and out of effect when they move from one State to another. And for our part, we lament that the Court does not move to put the anchoring point in place as it sends the matter back to the States: that as we draw on the objective facts of embryology, that offspring in the womb has never been anything less than human from its first moments, and not merely a part of the mother. If that predicate were put in place, there would be a clearer understanding of what makes it deeply justified for the laws in the States to cast their protections over the child in the womb. And what makes it warranted in turn for Congress and the federal courts to act when the protections of the law are withdrawn from a whole class of human beings in the States.

The downside here is that when the Court does not place that anchoring point in its decision, the issue will be returned to the States with the sense that the laws in the State will simply depend on the opinions and “value judgments’ of people on when that life in the womb begins. If this matter is preserved in the realm of personal “beliefs” on when human life begins, we should not be surprised to discover people in the pro-life States complaining that they have been dispossessed of a deep personal right simply because it wasn’t supported by the opinions and “beliefs” of 51 percent of the people around them.  

It is a good thing that this first step is taken, and the paths of persuasion and argument are opened. But if the American people absorb now the premise that the standing of human life bears no objective truth, that the respect for respect for that life depends on the vagaries of opinions whirling around us, I can say with an utter clarity of hindsight that we will have ourselves, in that respect, a far worse people than the people who filled the landscape around me when I was a child. The law, at that time, offered guidance—and shelter. It delivered a gentle but hard alert to young people: that if a young woman became pregnant, that was the end of childhood, for herself and her male consort. It would be necessary to get married, leave school, with the fellow looking for a job. It was a gentle but firm encouragement to the young to avoid entering a field freighted with problems that they probably did not have the means or the wit to solve. It was a simple encouragement to stay out of trouble. And the evidence was that it worked. It has needed a revolution in manners and understanding to produce the culture we are living with now. Everything might have been caught in one glance with Red Skelton’s old joke, reflecting a culture that has fled: “They had a military wedding…Or, I think they had a military wedding…Let’s put it this way: there were guns there!” That joke, from a culture that has disappeared, simply reminded us that, even in Dogpatch U.S.A, the denizens could never imagine that if a woman became pregnant, they were free simply to “get rid of it” or throw it away. It has required a generation teeming now with the college-educated to deliver us from those simple moral recognitions, so primitive and so true.

But, in closing, we may be permitted some personal words of remembrance. We regret that our personal friends Michael Uhlmann, Mildred Jefferson, Jack Wilkie, and Antonin Scalia did not live to see this day. For few people worked harder than they did to restore protections of the law to the child in the womb.

Hadley Arkes is the Founder and Director of the James Wilson Institute as well as the Edward Ney Professor Emeritus of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.
Anchoring Truths
Anchoring Truths is a James Wilson Institute project
The James Wilson Institute’s Mission is to restore to a new generation of lawyers, judges, and citizens the understanding of the American Founders about the first principles of our law and the moral grounds of their own rights.
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