In 1974, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then president of the University of Notre Dame, warned Roman Catholics against ceding the abortion debate to "crude zealots who have neither good judgment, sophistication of procedure nor the modicum of civility needed for the rational discussion of disagreements in a pluralistic democracy."
This week, the "crude zealots" won. America's Catholic bishops are doing a victory lap over this decision. Four of the five justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade were conservative Catholics. (Chief Justice John Roberts, also a conservative Catholic, voted to uphold the Mississippi abortion ban at issue in the Dobbs case, but did not support overturning Roe outright.)
The bishops have been pushing for the overturn of Roe for decades, and many of them were glad to overlook Donald Trump's moral lapses because he declared himself anti-abortion. In his single term (at least so far), Trump, with the help of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, kept his promise and larded the court with three conservative justices eager to reverse 50 years of court precedent.
Now these same church leaders are calling on Americans to unite, and for dissension to end. "It is a time for healing wounds and repairing social divisions," the bishops wrote in a statement. "[I]t is a time for reasoned reflection and civil dialogue, and for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love."
What planet do they live on, to suggest that such an outcome is remotely plausible? Strife will just devolve to the states. Indeed, a 2021 investigation by the National Catholic Reporter found that major anti-abortion groups were funding voter suppression efforts in key states, endorsing Donald Trump's Big Lie and pushing for future Republican victories. That doesn't sound like "coming together" to me.
Worse, abortion bans could be the first step toward a police state for pregnant women and anyone who may help them terminate a pregnancy. As the New Yorker's Jia Tolentino predicts, pregnant people could conceivably be surveilled to ensure they do nothing to endanger a "preborn" child — and could be charged with murder if a miscarriage or stillbirth is confused with an abortion.
But women who want to get pregnant may also be at risk. The Catholic church condemns in vitro fertilization (IVF) because of its doctrine that life begins at conception, wary that some fertilized eggs could be discarded or used in medical research. If a state decides to take the same position, where does that leave infertile women and couples?
In their statement hailing the Roe decision, the bishops congratulated anti-abortion activists on all the alleged good they have done to support pregnant women over the years. But they might also consider all the money that was squandered on this decades-long struggle, and the moral compromises they made along the way. Trump's narrow election victory in 2016 was almost certainly fueled by older, white Catholics in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan who listen to what the church says.
The bishops also might meditate on the fact that the so-called help that pregnant women received was clearly insufficient. The U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality among wealthy nations and also ranks poorly on infant mortality, with rates far higher than other major Western nations like France and the U.K.
But the Catholic hierarchy's abortion obsession has had other pernicious side effects. During the pandemic, bishops' nitpicking over the extremely remote connection between abortion procedures and the development of life-saving COVID vaccines meant that the U.S. church did not wholeheartedly endorse Pope Francis' view of vaccination as a moral obligation.
How many hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated Americans died because of those strange abortion qualms? On the bishops' planet, only the innocent "preborn" have any real right to life. The rest of us must adjust to the dictates of what increasingly looks like a doctrinaire Supreme Court dominated by ultra-conservative Catholics.