Light & Life
January/February 2004
By Alan Dowd

Roe v. Wade just turned 31. Marking the end rather than the beginning of so many lives, it was a most unusual and unhappy birthday. 

The numbers are staggering; indeed, they are almost too large to grasp. Since 1973, perhaps as many as 42 million abortions have been performed in the United States. Theses figures at once validate our inertia and numb us to an unspeakable loss. Because the lives of Roe’s victims were incomplete, those of us who escaped are also incomplete. We have lost something immeasurable—the dreams and hopes of an unseen, unborn generation. It’s simply impossible to know where those dreams could have led us. There’s no way to calculate what they might have discovered, invented, built or cured.  

But this much is certain: Roe’s earliest victims would be entering their thirties today, starting families, building careers, enjoying the prime of life. The bulk of Roe’s children would be in their twenties. They would live in a country not of 284 million, but of more than 326 million—perhaps far more, given the fact that many of them would have children of their own. Some 13 million of them would be black, 26 million of them white. They would have been doctors and teachers and bus drivers and inventors and rabbis and pastors and maids and soldiers and artists and janitors—and, yes, drug dealers, crooks, deadbeats, prostitutes, lowlifes, and addicts: With the awesome gift of free will, they would have faced daily choices that shaped their lives in the here-and-now and determined their lives in the hereafter.  

Indeed, life in the here-and-now wouldn’t have been easy for many of them. It wouldn’t have been perfect for any of them.  In fact, it would have been downright painful and tragic for some of them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of life wouldn’t have been worth living. Because they would have been born into freedom, they wouldn’t have been cursed by their origins, by their handicaps, by the fact that a mother didn’t want them or a father wasn’t around or a grandparent was ashamed. 

From Pharaoh to Roe

Jesus could relate to Roe’s children. Like so many of them, he faced long odds and a future full of question marks. For a time, Mary was an unwed teenage mother-to-be, just like the moms of so many of Roe’s victims. Not only were Jesus’ parents members of a racial minority, they were poor. In fact, Mary and Joseph were essentially homeless when Jesus was born. Things didn’t get much better once they planted their humble roots in Nazareth. Nathanael expressed the common notion about Jesus’ boondocks hometown when he snapped, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) 

But the similarities go beyond long odds, unplanned pregnancies and humble origins. Jesus could relate to Roe’s victims because their fate was supposed to be His: Herod executed hundreds of children in a mad attempt to kill the newborn Jesus and thus eliminate any threat to his throne. Like us, Jesus escaped—but so many did not. As Wendy Murray Zoba asked in her chilling essay about the first Christmas, “How do we reconcile the glorious birth of our Savior with the bloody death of those boys?”  

Of course, long before Herod’s holocaust, it was all too apparent that God’s people lived in a world where children could be exterminated like rodents. Abraham lived in a time when fathers willingly sacrificed their infant children to please the gods. Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn Hebrew males to keep his army of slaves manageable. Despite the efforts of Shiphrah and Puah, uncounted baby boys were killed at the birth canal or dumped in the Nile because of Pharaoh’s decree. But God illustrated how different He was—and His people were to be—by testing Abraham and sparing Isaac, by forbidding the “profane” practice of child sacrifice, and by commanding Moses and us “to choose life.” (See Genesis 22, Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 30) 

Simply put, destroying children and other innocents is nothing new. It’s part of an ancient struggle between life and death, darkness and light. And it’s arguably the oldest weapon of God’s oldest enemy. There’s a reason Jesus called him “a murderer from the beginning.” (John 8:44) What he began with Cain’s jealous rage and refined through wars, crucifixions, concentration camps and gulags, he has perfected with Roe

Other Victims

Of course, the unborn aren’t Roe’s only victims. In a very real sense, their mothers are victims, too. They are haunted by ghosts with no name, no voice. They bear physical and psychological scars. Many are abandoned by family and friends, boyfriends and husbands, churches and pastors. Something tells me that Jesus sees these broken women in a far different light than we see them. He has a tenderness for women—especially hurting, wounded women—that most of His followers lack.  

For those who stumble upon Him in the midst of an unquenchable thirst, like the Samaritan woman, He offers the cleansing water of forgiveness and grace.

For those who come to Him used and abused, like the woman caught in adultery, He simply says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” (John 8:4-11) 

For those who weep over their lost children, like the widow at her son’s funeral, He offers comfort and a promise: Roe’s victims live with Him in eternity. And as David said after his baby boy died, although the Lord will not return these children to their mothers, their mothers can one day return to them. (See 2 Samuel 12:13-22) 

As society condemns these secondary victims of abortion, Jesus sees past their mistakes. He longs to throw His arms around them and restore them. But He cannot restore them until they turn back to Him. And so, He waits for His daughters to come home, even as He embraces their children.  

Turning Points?

In the same way, He waits for our nation to turn back. Roe is more than just a court decision. It’s a kind of collective sin, the hideous offspring of a thousand other sins—selfishness, indifference, envy, greed, gluttony, ambition, hypocrisy, bigotry, lust, rage. And like the ancients with their golden calf, we all share the guilt—if not for Roe’s creation, then for its continued existence.  

A latter-day David would turn to God and beg for mercy, for heavenly hyssop to wash away the blood of a generation. Were Isaiah here, he would turn to us and call on a wayward people to defend the fatherless, the oppressed, the weak—rather than erasing them. If only we knew God as well as the pagan people of Nineveh, we would clothe ourselves in sackcloth and plead for forgiveness.   

Yet Jesus doesn’t desire public displays of piety. He desires mercy. He desires a change of heart. He wants us to imitate Him by embracing the tiniest and weakest among us. And He offers us a sobering reminder: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”(Mark 9:37) Likewise, whoever turns them away does the same to Him.   

After three long decades, we may finally be turning away from Roe. Consider the transformation of Norma McCorvey, better known by her pseudonym Jane Roe. In 1973, she asked the courts to grant her the right to have an abortion. In 2003, she asked the courts to overturn the decision they once made in her favor, citing 5,400 pages of scientific evidence and anecdotal documentation detailing Roe’s terrible consequences.

The American people, like McCorvey, are increasingly squeamish about what their indifference has wrought. A 1995 Gallup poll found that more than 50 percent of Americans called themselves pro-choice; about a third said they were pro-life. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans favor "restoring legal protection for unborn children." And these are more than just opinions: America’s shifting mood is slowly translating into substantive changes. For example, in 84 percent of U.S. counties there are no abortion providers at all. States are enacting commonsense laws to protect mothers and fathers—and their unborn children—from rash decisions and agenda-minded clinicians. In fact, almost half the states have mandatory waiting periods in force.  

The shift in attitudes is no doubt being spurred by scientific advances, as underscored by McCorvey’s pro-life legal brief. Pre-natal imagery is giving us a new window on life at its very earliest stages. Recall the head-turning GE commercial: “When you see your baby for the first time on the new GE 4D Ultrasound system, it really is a miracle." (Italics added.) Micro-surgery is now, incredibly, being performed on unborn children both inside and outside the womb. As a recent Newsweek cover story explained, “No matter what legislators, activists, judges or even individual Americans decide about fetal rights, medicine has already granted unborn babies a unique form of personhood—as patients.” Again, I add italics to underscore how one of the traditional bastions of abortion rights—the mainstream media—is changing.  

Simply put, medicine can no longer avoid recognizing the continuity of human life––stretching not from birth to death, but from conception to death. And the media can no longer use euphemism and word games to conceal what abortion is—and what it does.  

The changes are even buffeting Washington. After almost a decade of debates and vetoes, the House and Senate recently passed legislation ending partial-birth abortion, a procedure too gruesome to describe here. For his part, President George W. Bush is trying to supplant Roe’s culture of waste with what he calls “a new culture of life.” Bush reinstated the ban on federal assistance to international abortion providers. In spring 2001, Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services notified states that Medicaid would no longer cover abortion pill RU486. By July of 2001, HHS officials drafted a policy allowing states to provide medical coverage under theChildren’s Health Insurance Program to “unborn children.”  

It wouldn’t be the last time the Bush administration’s choice of words raised eyebrows and tempers. In 2002, the White House announced plans to distribute nearly $1 million to promote “embryo adoption.” The purpose was simply to raise public awareness about the existence of tens of thousands of frozen embryos originally created for in-vitro fertilization but since left in limbo. However, the program promises to have a much broader and more lasting impact than TV ads and public service announcements would.  

By using the word adoption instead of donation or contribution, proponents made an emphatic statement about when life begins. They also made some people nervous. Those who refuse to make a distinction between human embryos and lab rats worry that the program will fence off vast fields of embryonic life from which they hope to harvest tissue and cells. And abortion advocates worry about the long-term viability of Roe itself. As Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, concedes, “It’s part of this larger trend we see of attempting to endow the embryo with personhood status.”  

An Asterisk

However, this good news comes with an asterisk. In 2002, HR 2175 became law. Like all legislation, the bill begins with a brief explanation of its purpose. And in this case, the purpose is as simple as it is stunning: “To protect infants who are born alive.” With those seven little words, the bill says more about 21st-century America than an entire almanac.  

Despite the baby steps we have taken toward a culture of life, our society still more closely resembles the pagan tribes of Abraham’s day than one shaped by God’s people. That’s how far we have turned away from God in the thirty years since Roe. Perhaps the only good news is that we may finally be turning back.

*Cover Feature