It is dismaying to hear some pro-life politicians calling for a “truce” on social issues like abortion - possible White House contenders Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour among them. Their suggestion is that it’s more important to do whatever is necessary to get elected than to worry about issues that appear to be intractable.
This tactic is akin to the pro-life and pro-abortion movements agreeing to disagree, an option often considered a reasonable one. It does not require that either side change its views, but simply agrees to allow the different views, and the practices that flow from them.
Sorry, but this is a proposal we in the pro-life movement can’t accept. There can be no truce.
First of all, to ask us to “agree to disagree” about abortion is to ask us to change our position on it. Why do we disagree in the first place? When we oppose abortion, we disagree with the notion that it is even negotiable. We do not only claim that we cannot practice abortion, but that nobody can practice it, precisely because it violates the most fundamental human right, the right to life. To “agree to disagree” means that we no longer see abortion for what it is - a violation of a right so fundamental that disagreement cannot be allowed to tamper with it.
To “agree to disagree” is to foster the notion that the baby is a baby only if the mother thinks it is, that the child has value only if the mother says it does and that we have responsibility only for those we choose to have responsibility for.
Certainly, there are many disputes in our nation about which we can “agree to disagree.” Various proposals, programs and strategies can be debated as we try to figure out how best to secure people’s rights. But these legitimate areas of disagreement relate to how to secure people’s rights, whereas the abortion controversy is about whether to secure or even recognize those rights at all. We can agree to disagree whether certain government programs should be allowed, but not whether acts of violence should be allowed. “Agree to disagree” seems like a neutral posture to assume, but it neutralizes what can never be neutral; namely, the right to life.
Furthermore, the abortion dispute is not merely about conceptual disagreement - it’s about justice. It’s about violence, bloodshed and victims who need to be defended. In the midst of a policy permitting thousands of babies a day to be killed, to “agree to disagree” means to cease to defend the absolute rights of these victims.
We don’t fight oppression by “agreeing to disagree” with the oppressor. It is precisely when the oppressor disagrees that we have to intervene to stop the violence. The fact that the oppressor does not recognize the victim as a person does not remove our obligation to the victim. In the face of injustice, we are not simply called to disagree with it, but to stop it.
Worse even than the notion of agreeing to disagree is the suggestion that abortion is irrelevant as an issue in the 2010 elections because it is “settled law.” No issue is less settled than abortion. More importantly, America’s courts and legislatures have a history of changing “settled law.”
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) is the most commonly cited instance. The slaveholder’s right to property eclipsed and subsumed the slave’s right to freedom. But the Constitution eventually was amended to correct the error.
Decisions like Lochner v. New York (1905) show us another error: Employers’ right to contract eclipsed and subsumed the workers’ rights to humane conditions and hours. These abuses were corrected by subsequent Supreme Court decisions like Muller v. Oregon and Bunting v. Oregon.
The “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) sanctioning segregation was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education some 58 years later.
Erroneous decisions like Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) institutionalized child labor. But this was overturned 23 years later by United States v. Darby. A new development - a “pedagogical moment” - occurred here in constitutional law. The question was whether constitutional rights applied to children, too. The answer was yes.
Many reversals of Supreme Court cases came about when new evidence made it clear that someone’s rights, not previously recognized, were being violated. Thus, Louis Brandeis brought forward the facts about how workers were being harmed.
We are now witnessing the same trend regarding children in the womb. Evidence that has been around for quite some time demonstrating their humanity, and their inalienable right to life, is finding its way into legislatures and courts.
With hundreds of embryological studies, and massive evidence of the harm abortion does to women, such evidence, combined with new legal concepts, can challenge Roe v. Wade in the same way its erroneous ancestral decisions were challenged.
The day after Roe v. Wade was decided, the New York Times headline read, “Supreme Court settles abortion.” It has remained the most unsettled issue on our national landscape.
Father Frank Pavone has been national director of Priests for Life in New York City since 1993. He also is president of the National Pro-Life Religious Council.