In the 19th century owning African Americans as slaves was legal — it was the law, but it was not right! At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a law in this land that women could not vote — it was the law, but it was not right! In the 21st century, there is a law in this land that abortion is legal — it is the law, but it is not right!
Throughout history there have been groups of people crying out for liberty, justice, and freedom. In this country we need to assure that there is liberty and justice for all. In particular, we should continue to work for a sense of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As we mark the 39th anniversary of the decision in the landmark case, Roe v Wade, which legalized abortion in this country, I believe that it is important to speak up and defend the sacredness of life. Life begins at the moment of conception.
Unfortunately, the argument for keeping abortion legal in this country is the same argument that was used for slavery: that certain people are property and that others have the power of life or death over them. What was once thought to be the safest place for a child — the mother’s womb — is no longer the case.
When Roe v Wade became a part of our nation’s history in January 1973, it removed every legal protection from human beings prior to birth. The effects of Roe v Wade is virtually incalculable. Many lives have been destroyed before birth and even during the very process of being born. Countless women have been traumatized by abortion but now spend years struggling to find peace and healing. Many men have grieved because they could not “choose” to protect the child they helped bring into existence. And many in our society tolerate abortion in order to be politically correct which only results in becoming callus to the destruction of human life.
The Declaration of Independence, written more than 200 years ago, speaks for the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” before making this historic assertion: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Today we see the tensions increasing between these founding principles and political reality.
Since 1973 the natural and divine right to life in our society has been continually undermined by the law itself. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in a continuing violation of the right to life of unborn children, as well as in efforts to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.
In the cruel calculus of choice, the destruction of unborn children who are considered undesirable – because they are the wrong sex, have genetic defects such as Downs Syndrome or are considered an economic, social or personal liability -- has become routine. This tragic failure of our society to protect the unborn is a disturbing reminder of another collapse of social solidarity: Germany in the 1930’s, when entire classes of people were declared to be unworthy of life and outside of the protection of the law.
In the 19th century those in favor of slavery argued that their right to property (including property in slaves) was absolute. African-American slaves and their white allies in the long struggle to abolish slavery countered by saying that while the right to property was important and legitimate (even for slaveholders), slave owners had no right to property in slaves, because slaves were human beings with a natural right to liberty.
One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the idea that human beings were routinely held in bondage and bought and sold like cattle is unimaginable. Yet many Americans before the Civil War accepted slaves and slavery as a normal part of the political, economic, social and moral landscape. We wonder how it was possible that otherwise good and well-meaning people could be so blind to such a moral evil.
From my perspective, I wonder if future generations will look back on our time and wonder how people of our age could be so indifferent to the fate of so many of our unborn children and so accepting of legalized abortion.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.