Two years ago, my first column for Inside Catholic came in the form of a controversial piece about why, as a pro-life Catholic, I no longer attend the March for Life.
In my newness to the format, and taking into consideration the complexity of the issue, I failed to make an argument that was balanced and succinct, and the final product after editing for length was a legalistic consideration that left much of the nuance I included in the original piece on the cutting room floor, as it were.
What I was not able to include was my personal sense about the March: that it is — or at least has become — a largely ignored political statement that serves little purpose other than to make pro-lifers feel good about being pro-life. As a former regular attendee, I am well aware of this feeling. Get together with tens of thousands of other pro-lifers, march down Constitution Avenue on what invariably amounts to one of the coldest days of the year (“Offer it up!”) and make a stand in front of the Supreme Court to let them know you’re mad as hell that abortion is legal and you’re not going to take it anymore. (If you’re in college, you then head immediately to the Dubliner for a pint of self-congratulatory Guinness and to catch up with old friends it seems you only get to see on January 22nd.)
As time wore on, however, something nagged at me. It began to feel more and more like it was all just for show, and a show nobody was watching but us. You want to believe the halls of power are listening, but when you live in Washington you come to realize that your protest is just one of countless protests that blend into a faceless procession of traffic and transit annoyances for the residents of D.C.
In addition, our focus, I began to realize, was all wrong. Here we were, marching up to the steps of the Supreme Court to show our displeasure with their judicial activism by demanding some of our own. This was plainly hypocritical, and yet somehow it took me years to see it. In essence, while what we wanted was good, we were going about it the wrong way. If an imperial judiciary which stepped outside the bounds of its own power was responsible for this horrifying law, I couldn’t see how asking them to continue acting imperiously would rectify the situation. What we would need is judicial restraint, and proper lawmaking, if we were going to remedy this situation in a permanent, lasting way – a way that wouldn’t later be overturned by the same extra-judicial means that gave us Roe (and rid us of it, if we got what we wanted) in the first place.
The Supreme Court should not, if it is operating within its parameters, be swayed by the protests and opinions of the public. It is not an elected body. And if it is true that the Supreme Court is not functioning properly when it creates new laws or rights out of whole cloth, finding things in the Constitution that are not there, should we not desire that it return to its rightly ordered state as quickly as possible, rather than exploit its erroneous openness to “philosophical predilection and moral intuition,” as Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissent during Planned Parenthood v. Casey? Shouldn’t we want a court that does what it’s supposed to do as defined by the Constitution, rather than following the whim of popular opinion?
The reality is that a change in abortion policy will not happen at the national level in a country so divided on the issue and so driven by partisan politics. We need to focus on a realistic endgame. Many talk about a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, but even if one believed that were a good idea (which I am not entirely convinced is so) it is indisputable that such an Amendment could not currently pass the ratification process, which requires a simple majority vote in both houses of Congress and a two-thirds majority passage by the 50 states. We need to recognize that an issue that is so important to the people must be decided by the people, not an imperial judiciary or at the whim of a President.
On the occasion of the confirmation of Justice Alito, Congressman Ron Paul, whose Presidential candidacy I supported, made the following observation in a column published at LewRockwell.com:
Why are we so afraid to follow the Constitution and let state legislatures decide social policy? Surely people on both sides of the abortion debate realize that it’s far easier to influence government at the state and local level. The federalization of social issues, originally championed by the left but now embraced by conservatives, simply has prevented the 50 states from enacting laws that more closely reflect the views of their citizens. Once we accepted the federalization of abortion law under Roe, we lost the ability to apply local community standards to ethical issues.
Those who seek a pro-life culture must accept that we will never persuade all 300 million Americans to agree with us. A pro-life culture can be built only from the ground up, person by person. For too long we have viewed the battle as purely political, but no political victory can change a degraded society. No Supreme Court ruling by itself can instill greater respect for life. And no Supreme Court justice can save our freedoms if we don’t fight for them ourselves.
While for some people, like myself, that realization made attending seem a superfluous gesture, my advice was never to advocate a wholesale abandonment of the March for Life, but merely to see it for what it is – a rhetorical statement which lacks political teeth, but strengthens and energizes its participants. It is more effective as a tool to reinforce its constituents than as an agent of change. It cannot replace a more coherent and effective strategy.
This year, as I see the scant coverage of the March on Fox News from my home in Tucson, Arizona, I realize that the political climate has changed since my original column. I am removed from Washington for the first time in years, and I have witnessed the grassroots phenomenon that is the Tea Party movement. With the election this past week in Massachusetts, with a growing number of voters now identifying themselves as independents, with the decline in popularity of both the major political parties, there is a sense that America is waking up.
Maybe now, more than any time in recent memory, the March is more significant than I’ve given it credit for. Americans have remembered the power of grassroots activism, and are using it to challenge the status quo in government. We’ve got a long way to go before building a culture of life in America that would overwhelmingly support legislative change on abortion, but for the first time in many years, I feel something I had all but lost: