Once again, these middle days of January raise the deepest questions of existence. Questions about freedom and liberty, humanity and personhood, creatures and their Creator.
It began Monday, as it has for nearly a quarter-century, with the national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It ends today, Jan. 22, with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
These days should engage the minds of all Americans. Others may have more personal reasons. When these days arrive, I cannot help but think of loved ones whose lives are forever linked to the question of abortion.
Jan. 22, 1973, was a day of birth. My youngest sister began that morning inside my mother; she ended that day in a hospital nursery in Nebraska. At sunrise that day, her life enjoyed the same protection of law regardless of whether she was inside or outside the womb.
By the end of that day, that was no longer true. For in ruling in favor of a then-unidentified Texas woman seeking an abortion, a 7-2 Supreme Court majority rejected that state’s claim that an unborn child is a “person” under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. If they were right, Justice Harry Blackmun agreed, “Jane Roe” was wrong. But he was persuaded “that the word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.”
So when does any member of Homo sapiens become a person? That, Blackmun decreed 37 years ago today, “has generally been contingent upon live birth.”
Thus other words and events come to mind:
- The heart of the Declaration of Independence, expressing what so many Americans consider the truly highest law of this land: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
- This, a Baptist preacher said in 1964 at Drew (N.J.) University, “does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews.” And, Martin Luther King Jr. added, “that is something else at the center of the American Dream … It says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. They are gifts from the hands of the Almighty God.”
- An earlier Supreme Court majority agreed. In 1857, the “self-evident clause” “would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood,” then-Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote. And yet … :“it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration …”
With those words, Taney consigned Dred Scott — and all African-Americans — to the same category to which Blackmun committed the unborn a century later. It’s a category to which Jews and so many other groups also were condemned by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. They dubbed it Lebenunswertes Leben: “life unworthy of life.”
One group of humans declares another group of humans to be nonpersons. By such actions, in age after age, have the greatest crimes against humanity been committed.
My sister’s life was not, and never would have been, at risk of abortion. On the other hand, abortions certainly could have been procured — legally or not — in larger cities in 1965. The thought may have occurred to one pregnant woman that December in Lincoln, Neb. But she gave birth. Her daughter was adopted from a Catholic social-services agency by a couple from Scottsbluff, Neb. That daughter later became my wife.
Without her biological mother’s choice for life, four young Omahans — our children — would not be in this world. That includes our second son, born prematurely in 1994 at 28 weeks, five days of gestation. He too was born in the morning. That evening, he had the rights of personhood. Unknown numbers of unborn children that evening — children where they ought to have been — did not. All because, in the judgment of a Supreme Court justice, my son had hit the atmosphere.
Our son turns 16 next week. He celebrated today not here in Omaha, but as one of 350 people from the
Archdiocese of Omaha amid hundreds of thousands of pro-lifers taking part in the March for Life in Washington. And so another middle of January comes to an end. A week that began by remembering a great man who so nobly defended the dignity of all members of Homo sapiens — and ended with fresh reminders of our refusal to fulfill this aspect of his dream.
If you liked this article, please read: Remember to pray for Ted Kennedy as Catholics pray for all the dead; John Brown’s murderous spirit evident in Tiller slaying; The script complete, Sotomayor is alone with her Catholic conscience; Don’t expect a surprise pro-life outcome from Sotomayor nomination; Notre Dame was no sign of contradiction to Obama