The Law of Unintended Consequences: A Cautionary Look at Overturning Roe v. Wade

“A true culture of life cannot be sustained solely by changing laws,” President Bush told the crowd at the March for Life rally in January. “We need, most of all, to change hearts.” Not everyone appreciated his comments.

“Maybe he is an idiot,” conservative pundit Ann Coulter fumed in her syndicated column. “The ‘changing hearts’ portion of the abortion debate is over. …All the hearts that can be changed have been changed. …The only thing we need to do now is to start ‘changing laws.'”

But is she right? When a bad law becomes enmeshed in the warp and woof of a culture, an indiscriminate steamroller will only embed it further. In order to untangle what should never have come together, one needs patience, a magnifying glass, and a nimble hand at the ready. Then one does only that which is doable in the moment, for, as Pope John Paul II wrote, “Every day we have to deal with the realities of this world.”

Roe v. Wade is a piece of oxymoronic judicial legisla­tion which is indeed a reality of this world. In three decades it has cut a deep and terrible gash into our collective reason, leaving people on both sides of the debate feeling raw. But public opinion is changing. Recent polling data suggest that, 45 million abortions into America’s cele­bration of “choice,” the nation is taking a longer and harder look at Roe and its effects. An August 2004 Gallup poll found that the number of self-proclaimed “pro-life” Americans has risen to 46 percent, the highest percentage since 1995. In a follow-up question, 56 percent polled declared that abor­tion availability should be restricted, while 17 percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

With such encouraging numbers—fully 73 percent of respondents feeling negative rather than positive about abortion—there are more than a few pro-lifers who feel that Roe is in its final days and who share Coulter’s eagerness to “start changing laws.” To them, President Bush sounds starry-eyed and strangely irresolute, unwill­ing to seize the moment. After all, with the legislative and executive branches under Republican control, and the likelihood of one or more vacancies soon becom­ing available on the Supreme Court, pro-lifers are feel­ing more hopeful than they have at any time since the court’s 1973 ruling.

Nevertheless, despite the movement’s understandable desire to get things in gear, the president’s call for an ap­peal to the heart might be exactly the right tactic for the moment. President Bush is simply being mindful of the re­alities of this world, and he is looking for a means to effect lasting change. He proposes to jump into the fault line of Roe v. Wade and shore up the instability that first caused the rupture; he has set himself the task of breaking open and ul­timately repairing something within the human heart. That is a huge undertaking that will require time, patience, and a firm, steady touch.

But why, with polls trending our way, should we concern ourselves with this delicate surgery on the heart? Why won’t the president simply do as Coulter demands?

Well, for one thing, law-changing has already proved ineffective. Consider the history: When legislators finally passed a bill banning the practice of partial-birth abor­tion—which the president signed—the law was stayed within hours by two judges who found it “unconstitution­al.” Sign all the laws you want—if you have activist judges on the bench, and a few willing plaintiffs, you can render any law impotent and void. That is one of the realities of this world.

When the Supreme Court announced its ruling on Roe v. Wade, the nation split in two. Changing the law won’t change that. The fault lines will remain deeper than ever—and our nation could face another 32 years of march­es, ranting, and violence.

But overturning Roe could do more than that. In a polarized world heavy with lawyers and public litiga­tion, we must also consider what such a dramatic change might bring to a world of divided sensibilities—especially when pundits, documentary-filming propagandists, and “organized anarchists” hold positions of unprecedented influence. In so divisive an era as ours, such an overturn­ing could wreak political and cultural havoc throughout the nation, and it could cause serious problems for the churches, too.

I am not engaging here in fear-mongering, nor am I ad­vocating anything less than the full abolition of abortion. Nevertheless, as pro-lifers, we must acknowledge the truism that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reac­tion.” Furthermore, we must anticipate what might come from overturning a law before hearts have been made ready. For the consequences aren’t merely societal. Indeed, such a move could actually lead to a full-blown schism within our own Church.

Does that sound improbable? Think again. Most of us already know Catholics who refer to themselves as “Ameri­can Catholics,” careful to distinguish themselves from that (insert one or more) intolerant/sexist/racist Church in Rome. There are entire parishes that simmer and pop with palpable restlessness, reflexively embracing the ten­ants of deconstruction over orthodoxy and calling for the acceptance of abortion, divorce, and women’s ordination the way some saints have called upon the Holy Trinity. Angered by the overturning of Roe (and Rome’s vigorous support of it), those parishes could conceivably try to ef­fect a formal separation.

And so we could end up with an American Catholic Church—an amalgamation of Roman ritual and liberal orthodoxy, designed to live the age throughout the Faith, rather than live the Faith throughout the age. It would be well-sustained by the participation of too many poorly cat­echized Catholics who—seeing no difference in ritual and ignorant of other distinctions—would choose its less de­manding, more tolerant way, and by those Catholics who have already left the Church after a divorce, or an abortion, or a heated political discussion, or because they read The Da Vinci Code and lost all understanding.

I need not mention the ensuing battle for property own­ership that would be undertaken on behalf of the schismatic church. Suffice it to say that between endless court cases and a few “enlightened” bishops hungry for the attention and influence they would garner by moving left and sign­ing over deeds, such an event could be ruinous for the fis­cal health of the Roman Church. And the vacant theology of an American church would be ruinous for the spiritual health of the world.

Beyond these profoundly negative effects upon the Church, overturning Roe in the current climate of rancor could substantially damage the cultural and political health of the nation as a whole. In her column, Coulter shouts, “Let Americans vote!” She would be content to see the abortion question settled on a state-by-state basis. But again, actions have consequences, and we must deal with this world as it is. And this world is one that demands that people declare themselves and choose sides.

I know people who have no truck with political ad­versaries—individuals who will change dentists if they discover that their tooth diggers don’t think as they do. Just as the War Between the States brought brother into battle against brother, it’s not inconceivable that an is­sue this volatile will have family members, parishes, and ultimately whole communities choosing sides and grow­ing in distrust and dislike. And it is all too certain that one side will be urged on by pop-culture propaganda de­tailing the “slaughter of innocent women forced to self-abort,” fanning the flames by offering gruesome death footage intercut with scenes of sepia-toned Christians marching to the pounding drums of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

Internationally, pro-life red-staters may find travel and business dealings difficult among Europeans, who have al­ready settled the abortion question in their minds and are swiftly moving forward to embrace euthanasia. Domesti­cally, resourceful, blue, pro-abortion states could do serious economic damage to landlocked and less monied pro-life red ones. Civil wars need not be bloody to be profoundly destructive, and I worry what might happen along some state borders if, as one friend suggested, enterprising pro- abortion organizations arranged for “Abortion Get-Aways,” transporting affluent women (or less-affluent “scholarship” winners) across state lines in fully armed, aroma-therapied luxury coaches.

Some of what I’m saying must surely sound over-the­-top. But there’s much in 2 lst-century American political discourse that is over the top, and restraint doesn’t appear to be the order of the day. This is precisely why the president is correct in showing some restraint right now by suggesting that this is the time for an appeal to the human heart.

God is not found in the clamor of the howling wind or the thundering rain but in whispers. Igniting the powder keg of ideological and theological difference that today di­vides Left and Right, conservative and liberal, believer and atheist, could create a roar that may drown out everything that the Church and the pro-life movement have been try­ing to teach. Ironically enough, the immediate solution to the problem of abortion may, in winning a battle, extend and intensify the war.

So, what then? Should Christians and others who un­derstand the value of human life simply abandon the idea of overturning Roe? Should we focus instead on enforcing parental notification and a ban on partial-birth abortion and call that victory?

Not at all. The fight must continue. Nevertheless, tim­ing and tactics matter. We are at a new moment in Roe’s 32-year history. While the pro-life message is being heard and internalized, it’s happening at a time when many Americans are also being fed a steady diet of “concerns” about their personal freedoms under a president who is more interested in national safety than media approval. The explosion caused by the end of Roe could convince these people that everything the other side has ever said about conservatives and freedom is true—an event that could have serious repercussions for many election cycles to come.

Roe v. Wade is an earthbound law, reasoned and support­ed with faulty human wisdom. The long strategic battle to overturn that law has been (prayers excluded) full of earthbound strategies. Courts. Pleas. Elections. Marches. And yet Roe is still the law of the land, and people still seek abortions. America is a nation rich in personal free­doms and it desires to stay that way. Accept all of that as our framework.

And now look at it with heavenly eyes. In the Gos­pel of John, a blind man was brought before Jesus by His disciples who asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Then the Lord used the humblest materials—spittle and clay—to heal the man of his blindness.

Sometimes God allows something bad to happen so that something better—something perhaps even glorious— may occur. The sisters in my elementary school used to call it, “God writing straight with crooked letters.”

We who live in New York witnessed an example of that in the spring of 2000 when Rudolph Giuliani, diagnosed with prostate cancer, decided to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race. For his supporters, the unexpected turn of events was disappointing, but in September 2001, on a clear blue morning, a healthy and formidable Mayor Giuliani was in charge of the city of New York when two passenger jets flew into the World Trade Center. It’s unimaginable that anyone but he could have so reassured both the stricken city and a horrified world. “All I can say,” a neighbor said to me a few weeks after the attack, “is thank God Rudy Giu­liani was mayor of New York that day, and not schmoozing on the Senate floor.”

For everything there is a season, and a time and pur­pose unto heaven. Perhaps, as we see the glimmer of an opportunity in reversing a heinous law, this is meant to be a season of introspection for the Church—the most consis­tently pro-life voice for all these decades. Assuming that the introduction of Roe v. Wade was God “writing straight with crooked letters,” what could God possibly be up to? Or a better question: Did the Church have any culpability in the passing of Roe v. Wade? Should its passage have forced us into examining not the Church’s teachings, but the manner in which those truths were being communicated?

From the perspective of a laywoman who grew up through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, I can say with some feeling that the Church in America did a less­-than-stellar job of passing on the information and direction coming out of Rome.

To be fair, during the council and its immediate after­math, it wasn’t easy for the Church to be heard. The world was in the midst of a sort of grand mal seizure and much seemed to get jumbled or lost. Suddenly, all wisdom was found in Deconstructionism, and everything that came be­fore was deemed outdated, outmoded, un-hip, or patently false. With that outlook quickly entrenched, everything— even Eternal Truth—was ripe for change.

Meanwhile, Pope John XXIII, seeking to “let in some fresh air,” opened the window of the Church with Vatican II, and into its farthest recesses blew a gale of cultural and moral upheaval, dispersing the spirit of the council with gleeful abandon.

Into that maelstrom John’s successor, Paul VI, let fly with Humanae Vitae—a prophetic and timely instruc­tion that, while read by almost no one, nevertheless threatened to completely unhinge the Church. The la­ity, too overwhelmed with change and newfound power to prayerfully read the document, turned to the media for interpretation, and—to its everlasting shame—the Church let the secular press define this thoughtful papal letter as a sexually repressive, guilt-inducing, antiquated bit of patriarchal meddling.

The Second Vatican Council and Humanae Vitae were not failed endeavors in and of themselves. John XXIII was correct in wanting to assess where the Church was and what she might need. Paul VI was (I am convinced) divine­ly inspired to write Humanae Vitae even as he endured the world’s scorn. The Church didn’t fail in her morals or her motives—she failed in her means.

Accustomed to handing down a teaching and having it reflexively embraced, the mountain of the Roman Church, cold and distant, threw down two staggeringly important pieces of work and then slammed shut its windows against the increasingly harsh winds. In doing so, in her neglect, she inadvertently gave power to the ideas behind Roe v. Wade.


I am looking at a picture of my neighbor’s new grand­daughter, Isabella. The babe is only minutes old and already snuggling up to Mama, and Mama is gazing at her with such naked love it is almost too much to take in. One views such a scene and realizes: This is how God sustains the world. Not by the babies per se, not by the corporeal creation but by the love that comes at this moment.

Think of it. Little Isabella, while still in the womb, is al­ready—to her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—an anticipation of love. Then she arrives, and with her comes a love that has not existed before. Her birth allows brand-new, utterly pure love—as real and intense as something that has been present since before time—to come forth.

This is an event of Incarnation, and Salvation, and Pentecost. As an Orthodox priest once told me of the Vladimir Theotokos, “In that Icon is written the Gospel, entire.” Just so.

The love so apparent in that photo didn’t live in the world before Isabella’s birth. Yet mere seconds after it, her parents would have done anything—even given up their own lives—to protect hers. In accepting this love, they’ve become part of the Great Mystery, the Love of God for Creation, a Love so complete, so unconditional and all- encompassing, that One would die for it. If God is love, then here is God, renewed constantly through this coming, for there’s nothing earthbound that can bring forth love in quite this way.

In gazing at Isabella and her love-struck parents one understands why abortion is such a triumph of evil. Every time a baby is aborted, love is denied. This is the lesson the Church has never fully succeeded in communicating, and this is the message that the nation needs to hear.

In 1973, shortly after Roe v. Wade was made law, the Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter in which they discussed American civil law, the personhood of the fetus, and their own responsibilities to God. They stated that abortion is an evil which must involve excommunication. All of this is correct.

But nowhere does this document express the absolute depth of that evil. Nowhere in that letter does a woman learn that when she stops the coming of her child, she is closing off forever that particular and unique love. We needed to hear that in 1973, as we need to hear it still.

Into an era of values so distorted that “evil” was defined as a man opening a door for a woman and “good” was at­tached to every liberated idea, the Catholic bishops offered a document heavy with legal language. As a result, they de­ livered a pastoral letter that arrived—dare I say it?—still­born. And the world shrugged.

Is it too late? Can the Church, 30 years on, begin to re­shape its teaching on abortion as the Destroyer of Love? The Negator of God? Is the Church courageous enough to suggest to the world the “unsophisticated” idea that every abortion doesn’t simply “stop a beating heart” but blots out the light and strengthens the dark so profoundly that Satan stomps his foot in glee?

In order to overturn Roe v. Wade in a lasting way, some­thing is required of the Church. I believe this may be it.

If the Church is ready, this is the time to attach heavenly—supernatural—meaning to John Paul II’s con­cept of the Culture of Death. With the storms of re­structuring finally settling down, the Church is given another chance to remember the lesson of John’s gospel and to consider that Roe v. Wade was allowed into law so that “the works of God might be made visible through [it].” Eschewing spittle and clay, the Church may use the humble admission of its own incomplete teachings of 30 years ago to intone a forceful and clear Te Deum of Life, emphasizing not law and legalism and duty, but mercy and tenderness and love—and the privileged role humanity has in welcoming a God who renews the face of the earth.

Only when this lesson has been taught and ab­sorbed—when human hearts are nourished with the un­derstanding that infant life is recognizably the coming of a great love (and thus the coming of God)—will the abor­tion proponents fade in power and influence. Only then can Roe v. Wade be overturned in a lasting, sane, and con­structive way that precludes a cataclysmic reaction within the Church and the nation and avoids another 32 years of strife.

Roe v. Wade is earthbound legislation, and for too long the pro-life lobby has looked at it with earthbound eyes and sought an earthly solution. President Bush suggests that the great cause of ending abortion requires looking be­yond the material and daring to dream with other-focused eyes. If abortion has become enmeshed in the fabric of our lives, and if “every day we must deal with the realities of this world,” then it is time to acknowledge that ultimately, all that is woven into law begins within the depths of the human heart.


  • Elizabeth Tecla Mauro

    Elizabeth Thecla Mauro, the author of The Way of the Cross in Times of Illness (Liturgical Press, 2004), writes from New York State. Her much-loved brother passed away on the morning of January 14, 2005.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...