One evening in 1787 a young English M.P. pored over papers by candlelight in his home beside the Houses of Parliament. Wilberforce had been asked to propose the Abolition of the Slave Trade although almost all Englishmen thought the Trade necessary, if nasty, and that economic ruin would follow if it stopped. Only a very few thought the Slave Trade wrong, evil.
—John Pollack, biographer of William Wilberforce.
Sometimes we see ourselves more clearly in others. That was King David’s experience after his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. If you remember the Old Testament story (2 Samuel 11-12), David committed adultery with Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and had her husband killed to cover the whole thing over, all the while being utterly oblivious to the character and magnitude of his sin. What awakened him was not a sermon on the evil of adultery and murder, but a simple story of oppression: a rich man who had everything, but who nevertheless took the only lamb of a poor neighbor. David’s sense of justice remained intact, at least in part, for what he was blind to in his own life became crystal clear as he heard the story of another’s injustice; he then understood when told by the prophet “you are the man!”
Which brings me to the quote above concerning William Wilberforce. If one were to take a poll in London or New York today, public support for slavery would be practically non-existent. Despite much moral confusion and contention in the modern West, we at least recognize that slavery is wrong (even if we don’t really like the word “evil”). Yet it was not always so, for the institution of slavery deeply divided England, and in America it led to war. How do we account for the difference between now and then?
Might the present moral clarity have something do to with the fact that western society does not profit from slavery as it once did?
Many have drawn the parallel between the abolition of the slave trade then and the fight to end abortion now. We live in a culture with a vested economic and social interest in abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court itself has been surprisingly candid about this point. As the Court explained in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992):
The Roe rule’s limitation on state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. The Constitution serves human values, and while the effect of reliance on Roe cannot be exactly measured, neither can the certain costs of overruling Roe for people who have ordered their thinking and living around that case be dismissed.
In other words, if the Supreme Court were to allow states more power in determining abortion law, it would have a negative economic and social impact upon those whose sexual lives depend on access to abortion, particularly women. Under the veneer of legal reasoning lies social engineering.
We want what we want. According to the Supreme Court, we want to preserve our sexual license and our economic opportunity, and are willing to sacrifice young lives to do so. The Court was certainly correct that restricting abortion would cause significant disturbance in the way we “organize our intimate relationships.” Which is precisely why our situation is similar to Wilberforce’s 200 years ago. To return to Pollack’s words about slavery, is not the Court arguing that abortion is necessary, if nasty, and that economic (and social) ruin would follow if it is stopped?
Slavery did not become an institution in England overnight. It was built over time, until it became what many deemed a necessity. Yes, the slave trade’s eventual abolition did have economic consequences, undoubtedly disruptive for some. But English society did not fall apart, for in the end it did not depend upon the injustice that was slavery for its survival. And neither did American society.
It is not legal reasoning that props up the nation’s unrestricted abortion license. Our desires do. If it were simply a matter of legal reasoning, abortion law would look far different than it does today. The battle is deeper, and will only be won by those who understand abortion on demand as evil—for mothers and fathers and families, for communities, society, and, in the end, for mankind.