What comes now in the great battle for life?: The pro-life movement faces hard decisions ahead and many battles to come

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 27, 2023

One of my favorite preachers used to say that the most confused creature on earth is a dog that finally catches up with a garbage truck. After chasing that truck for years, the dog suddenly catches up with the truck. Now comes the hard part. What does a dog do with a garbage truck?

Pro-life Americans woke up last June to the fact that, at long last, the atrocity known as Roe v. Wade had been reversed by the Supreme Court. That struggle lasted what amounts to a half century. Starting from scratch, pro-life forces had to frame legal arguments, fight vast political battles, establish crisis pregnancy centers, and raise an army to defend human life. The titanic legal battle to reverse Roe was decades in the making, and those who defended life in the nation’s courtrooms had to learn how to make constitutional and legal arguments that would, over time, topple the deadly precedent.

The pro-life movement made the case that, in inventing a national right to abortion, the Supreme Court had arrogated to itself what belonged to the individual states and to the legislatures—the power to make laws concerning abortion.

Case by case, law by law, argument by argument, the pro-life movement learned how to frame the issue, define policy goals, and make legal progress. In fact, pro-life leaders often had to make multiple arguments at once, and to make them in motion. We all knew that ending Roe was just the start of the larger battle to defend life. Once Roe was reversed, the movement would have to decide on a strategy designed to end abortion nationwide. But how?

With Roe reversed last June, the pro-life movement became the dog that finally caught the garbage truck. The big questions arise now that Roe is gone. What is the right strategy to defend life now? Should we seek national legislation restricting and eventually ending abortion? Do we fight it out in the states, one by one? For political conservatives, those are huge and unavoidable questions.

The conservative disposition inclines toward state action, rather than toward a national solution. There are references to this in the Dobbs decision itself. Many conservative and pro-life legal scholars believe that the federal government has no right under the Constitution to legislate any right (or lack of right) to abortion. They argue that Congress simply lacks any constitutional authority to do so. These pro-life strategists argue for concentrating on ending abortion state by state, recognizing that some states will adopt a pro-life stance immediately (as several have) while others present massive political challenges. They argue against any attempt to legislate abortion at the national level.

Other conservative and pro-life figures argue for passing national legislation to restrict (and eventually end) abortion nationwide as soon as possible. They argue for working arduously at the national level to achieve pro-life legislation, arguing that Congress can claim constitutional authority under the Fourteenth Amendment. Precedent for congressional action would include the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, enacted in 2003.

Starting from the commitment that our goal must be to end abortion in America, this is no longer an abstract question. The 2024 race for the Republican presidential nomination already reveals that sides are lining up for battle over this issue. Legislation has now been proposed at the national level that would ban abortion nationwide at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Other pro-life strategists recoil at the idea of national legislation, arguing that this contradicts arguments the movement has made for 50 years. They insist this is a state issue, and they claim federalism as their guide.

Both sides insist that their way is the right way. So who is right?

Beginning with the absolute commitment to end legal abortion in America as soon as possible, I believe that the hard answer is that we must do both things at once. We must work state by state to pass as much pro-life legislation as possible, and to strengthen bans on abortion until the scourge of legal abortion is ended. The states are indeed the laboratories of democracy and they are where we can defend life most quickly.

But there are two problems with the state-only strategy. The first problem is the unevenness of the states and the second problem is that pro-abortion forces will seek to pass national legislation creating a legal right to abortion at their earliest opportunity. The state-by-state approach works well in states like Alabama and Texas, but pro-life victories in states like Illinois and California seem almost eschatological. On the other hand, if national legislation goes the wrong way, Alabama and Texas and other pro-life states could see their current laws protecting unborn life undermined.

But facts are facts, and the plain fact is that the Democratic Party is manically committed to making abortion legal nationwide without any meaningful limitation—far surpassing Roe in lethality. If a Democratic president has Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, they will press together to steamroll abortion at the national level. Pro-life forces have no choice but to work to protect unborn life through every means possible, and that includes working for legislation in Congress and in the states. Either way, the issue of any federal power to deal with abortion will end up at the Supreme Court. We might as well get there quickly. I say full speed ahead on every worthy effort to defend unborn life at every level until abortion in America is ended.

Conservatives in America are always up for an argument, and those arguments often illuminate the way ahead. In service to our readers, we offer two worthy arguments today in a point-counterpoint format. Katelyn Walls Shelton argues for pro-life action through federal legislation. Daniel R. Suhr argues that pro-life efforts should concentrate on action in the individual states. Both writers want to see abortion ended. Both want to preserve unborn life and make pro-life progress. What we see here are two different strategies in the form of two opposing arguments. I think WORLD Opinions readers are well served when we take these arguments head-on. Let us know what you think.

This article originally appeared at WORLD Opinions on April 27, 2023.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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