On the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

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The 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s "Roe vs. Wade" decision predictably will bring out the worst in sexual politics in this country, as the disinformation will flow on both sides, but especially from those who actually support this abomination of judicial act. Since the newspapers and airwaves will be filled with myths about this awful anniversary, I figure that it is time to set the record straight about a few things.

Myth #1: Roe vs. Wade "legalized" abortion.

Before the court’s decision, abortion was a matter left to the states, and the restrictions varied. Many states such as Texas — from where Roe vs. Wade originated — prohibited abortion except in special cases where the life or health of a woman was seriously jeopardized by a pregnancy. Others, such as New York and California had no such restrictions.

Roe vs. Wade did not "legalize" abortion as such, but rather was a punitive ruling that forbade states from restricting abortion during the first 12 weeks and basically abolishing most restrictions all the way until actual birth. To put it another way, it forced states to make abortion on demand a legal entity.

Let us assume, for example, that Roe were repealed by a future U.S. Supreme Court. While no doubt many Pro-Life activists would declare victory (and there would be much angst with the pro-abortion groups), all that would occur would be that the issue once again would go back to state legislatures, where the issue had been before 1973. There is a zero chance that a U.S. Supreme Court in overturning Roe would also declare abortion illegal, so even if Roe is repealed, many states such as New York, California, Maryland, and most of the New England states, along with many western states, would continue to permit abortion on demand, given their political makeup. To put it another way, while Roe may be symbolic to groups on both sides of the debate, it is not the end of the line.

A corollary myth that goes with state prohibition of abortion is that thousands of women each year were dying from illegal abortions. (Abortion advocates like to hold up signs depicting coat hangers with a slash through them — another form of disinformation.) While some women did die from illegal abortions, it was a rare occurrence. For that matter, many women today die or are severely injured from legal abortions, but such numbers are taboo in modern discourse, since one of the other myths propagated by our modern media is that legal abortion basically is a means for women to be able to safely control her "reproductive choices."

Myth #2: The "Civil Rights Movement" and Pro-Life advocates are natural allies.

This is a myth that is pushed by conservatives, both secular and religious, who hold that if Martin Luther King, Jr., were alive today, he would be allied with those who oppose abortion. Such opinions represent wishful thinking, as King was a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, the foremost abortion advocacy group in this country and currently the largest provider of abortions in the United States. (Planned Parenthood even awarded King its highest honor, the Margaret Sanger Award, in 1966.)

Before I look at Sanger and her beliefs (part of the next myth), let me first say that the process that gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Roe vs. Wade was the same: the centralization of law, removing much law from the purvey of the states — where the U.S. Constitution of 1787 had put such matters — and transferring that power to the central government. For all of the accusations of racism against them, people like Barry Goldwater (and even Strom Thurmond) did not oppose the Civil Rights Act out of racial motives (both men were considered to be moderate to liberal on social issues of race) but rather because it was an attempt to use the Constitution’s Commerce Clause in an unconstitutional manner. (I am not saying that all opponents of this act were racial liberals who opposed the act out of legal principle, but rather that it was possible to believe without racial animus that such policies constitutionally were up to the states, not the federal government. Furthermore, I believe that one can believe in freedom of association and not be a racist.)

In fact, much of the "civil rights" establishment then and now has been tied to the sexual politics of the left, and especially Planned Parenthood. While there are some pro-life people who are supportive of a strong federal role in "civil rights" matters, they are and always will be in a minority. The "civil rights" movement as we know it today is a child of the Progressivist movement, which had its genesis in the late 19th Century. This is ironic, of course, as the Jim Crow laws of the states and federal government that arose during that period were very much part of Progressivism and had their ultimate fulfillment in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most virulent racist (other than Abraham Lincoln) ever to occupy the White House.

That these two movements would be wedded is not as strange as it might sound, since both sought to take powers from the states and give them to the central government. Both were part of the larger movements to destroy freedoms of association and freedoms of conscience, legal powers given to the state that are now so firmly entrenched that all organized religion is permanently imperiled in the United States.

Unfortunately, the modern Pro-Life movements also are seeking to create "federal solutions" to issues regarding abortion. From attempts to create the "partial-birth" abortion restrictions to establishment of a constitutional amendment banning abortions, pro-lifers have sought to use the very mechanisms that gave us Roe vs. Wade in the first place. In other words, they are attempting to implement legal tools that have destroyed individual freedom in the name of protecting freedom. Such actions, I believe, will only lead to more tyranny, even if they actually do help stem the tide of legal abortions (which I seriously doubt would actually be the case.)

Myth #3: Abortion liberates the poor, who otherwise would be forced to have unwanted children. Advocates of abortion have done so in large part because of their love for the poor.

For all of the talk about the supposed "social conservatism" of black Americans, black elites have been at the forefront in promotion of extremely liberal pro-abortion policies. This is not by accident, even though the early advocates of abortion, and especially Margaret Sanger, saw abortion as a way to reduce the population of what they believed were "socially undesirable" racial groups, and especially blacks.

Sanger wrote that many blacks were "human weeds," "reckless breeders," and "human beings who never should have been born." Furthermore, she said in 1923 that the government should reward couples that permitted themselves to be sterilized, since that would bring about racial "purification." Birth control, she wrote, would "create a race of thoroughbreds."

Sanger, who subscribed to both doctrines of socialism and progressivism, was hardly alone in her desire to engage in wide-scale social engineering. The eugenics movement had its roots in progressivism, and had adherents not only within intellectual circles in the United States, but also saw fruition in Lenin and Stalin’s revolutionary Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. Even though the Nazis and communists clearly demonstrated the very dark side of eugenics, it is more "respectable" today than ever, having been accepted by liberal establishments in the USA and Europe.

For example, Peter Singer, the founder of the modern animal rights movement and an endowed professor at Princeton University, may be controversial to pro-lifers, but has been well-accepted by his Ivy League colleagues who really cannot understand why people are so upset with his belief that parents out to be able to have their children put to death even months after their births, or that doctors should have the opportunity to kill babies after birth who demonstrate "defects." The Netherlands permits doctors to kill patients (without their consent) who are deemed useless, and this rot has worked its way even into supposed Christian clergy.

A terrible example involves Michael Green, a British cleric writing in New Life, New Lifestyle (published by InterVarsity Press, 1973). Written to those who recently have converted to the Christian faith, Green approvingly quotes Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore, who rewrote the Ten Commandments and reproduces the rewrite in his book. On the fifth commandment, in which children are told to "honor your father and mother," Green writes, "Honor your father and mother, but not seek to prolong their natural term of life so that they are miserable." On the seventh commandment, the prohibition against adultery, he says, "You shall not commit sexual sin by producing more children than is your right."

Margaret Sanger, who was openly hostile to Christianity, easily could have been the author of such "commandments," as could have been Peter Singer. For that matter, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself could have written such words.

We do have the speech he wrote that was delivered to the Planned Parenthood audience by his wife, Coretta, in acceptance of the Margaret Sanger Award, and it must be read to be believed. Here was King honoring a woman whose beliefs regarding blacks were no more charitable than the views of Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.

While King never mentioned abortion in his speech, he could not have been uninformed of Sanger’s views, and I do not think his remarks were made in ignorance. In his lecture, he also believed that family planning would be a key to future to American blacks escaping poverty.

The problem, according to King, was that too many rural blacks who had moved to the cities were having too many children. He wrote:

During the past half century Negroes have migrated on a massive scale, transplanting millions from rural communities to crammed urban ghettoes. In their migration, as with all migrants, they carried with them the folkways of the countryside into an inhospitable city slum. The size of family that may have been appropriate and tolerable on a manually cultivated farm was carried over to the jammed streets of the ghetto. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. In all respects Negroes were atomized, neglected and discriminated against. Yet, the worst omission was the absence of institutions to acclimate them to their new environment. Margaret Sanger, who offered an important institutional remedy, was unfortunately ignored by social and political leaders in this period. In consequence, Negro folkways in family size persisted. The problem was compounded when unrestrained exploitation and discrimination accented the bewilderment of the newcomer, and high rates of illegitimacy and fragile family relationships resulted…. For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life.

King was hardly alone in his disdain for rural blacks. He grew up as an elite in the black community of Atlanta, which itself was one of the most elite black societies in the nation. Atlanta was also the home of elite black colleges such as Morehouse, and people who attended such higher education institutes looked disdainfully at rural-oriented colleges such as Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was founded by Booker T. Washington and was most famous for having the well-known scientist George Washington Carver on its faculty.

(Washington, who believed that black "equality" with whites could be reached only through hard work and investment, was roundly attacked by elite blacks who thought him to be an "Uncle Tom" or worse. On the other hand, Washington saved his most harsh criticism for professional "civil rights" activists, who he believed were making race relations worse, not better.)

Although King traditionally has been seen as an advocate for poor blacks, his speech to Planned Parenthood demonstrates his elitist roots that saw poor blacks basically as breeders of poverty. At least one answer to "solving" the problem of black poverty, he believed, was for black families to become smaller. While he did not endorse coercive measures in his speech, his lavish praise for Sanger, who did advocate government coercion in the area of birth control and abortion, certainly raises suspicions in my own mind. Just as the city planners of the Progressive Era believed that one could eradicate poverty by destroying slums and building parks and government housing, Sanger’s allies have believed that to get rid of poverty, all one has to do is to make sure that poor people never have children.

Myth #4: Roe vs. Wade was the natural extension of the rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights.

I could write an entire book on this one myth alone. In his majority opinion, Justice William Brennan declared that the Constitution contains a "penumbra" of rights, and from this "penumbra," the high court was able to derive a "right" to abortion.

The first thing to remember is that rights do not emanate from the U.S. Constitution, or from any legal document, for that matter. The framers of that document believed in natural rights for individuals and held that the purpose of government — its only legitimate purpose — was to protect rights that individuals already owned. It was not up to the government or the courts, they believed, to "discover" new rights, something that conflicts with the obvious belief of most Americans — and most of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court — that rights are something that the government permits us to possess.

The second thing to remember is that if rights are granted by the state, then those rights also can be taken away. Once upon a time, governments prohibited abortion because it ended an innocent human life, which was held to be sacred. The courts today now hold that unborn human life has no value and deserves no protection. To put it another way, the government by granting a "right" to abortion to a woman for almost any reason, could do it only by guaranteeing the destruction of human life. In other words, government did not expand rights; it deprived one group of humans a right to life in the process of permitting another group of humans the choice of not carrying their pregnancies to term.

There is much disagreement among libertarians as to what should be permitted in a free society in the area of abortion. Some of my libertarian friends support abortion rights, and others believe that it is abominable for human life to be ended in this manner.

However, I do find common ground in one area: most seem to hold, like I, that Roe vs. Wade was and is a judicial fraud. It is not the product of a free society, but rather is one more example of the state running amuck. If it is ever overturned (and I doubt it will), I for one will not mourn its passing.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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