Thirty-six years ago today, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade, discovering an emanation from the penumbras of the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed the right to legal abortion.
Every year since then, anti-abortion protesters have marked the anniversary of that decision by flocking to Washington for the National March for Life, filling the Mall and its surroundings with placards and banners and the sounds of speeches and slogans. They come from every part of the country and every walk of life. Women and men, Democrats and Republicans, plumbers, priests, politicians and professors march side by side. They come in numbers: the march is too loosely organized to take an exact count, but today, a couple hundred thousand marchers (including myself and a few carloads of students from Yale) are expected to show up in Washington, with more taking part in local marches around the country. It is one the largest grassroots movement in America.
The marchers are in Washington today not to advocate any obscure moral theory or arcane religious doctrine, but to defend the principle that innocent human life is not to be destroyed, that it has a dignity that does not have to be earned and that no one is so inconvenient as to deserve destruction. It is commanded in the Bible, cherished by philosophers of the Enlightenment, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and confirmed in the conscience of all but the most deranged. It ranks among the first principles of ethics and justice.
On this principle, the marchers against abortion advance a straightforward argument. At the moment of conception, what is conceived is a living human organism, and like every other human being, has an undeniable claim to human rights — among these the one to life. To declare the unborn child a nonperson is to play a dehumanizing game of definitions, to end its life is to kill a human being and to allow such killing is an intolerable injustice.
Such is the argument against abortion that the marchers bring with them to Washington today. There are other arguments to be made against Roe v. Wade; plenty of legal scholars, even those in favor of abortion rights, agree that the decision was not well thought out. But at the march today, few people will look to constitutional law. They make their case on an appeal to humanity. Their argument is simple and clear; to deny it takes some cleverness.
But defenders of abortion rights are not short on cleverness. Some argue that abortion, while a serious moral issue, is a personal matter, and no one has any right to condemn another’s decision. Others argue that an unborn child is too undeveloped, too unintelligent a human organism to merit human rights. And then there are those who consider the financial and emotional burdens of parenthood.
Most of the marchers in Washington today are aware of these arguments — and completely unmoved by them.
For those of us marching today, and to like-minded people everywhere, the social or personal benefits of abortion are completely irrelevant. The millions upon millions of abortions performed over the past 36 years are a human tragedy, an enormity before which all other concerns pale in importance. The marchers are not prepared to accept that a matter of life and death should be a matter of choice; if the pressures of modern society make abortion inevitable, they are ready to change society.
For them, abortion is primarily neither a women’s issue nor a religious issue but an issue of countless human lives cut short with the complicity of the law. And they will not accept that. They challenge our society to welcome even the smallest, the least significant and the least convenient.
And year after year, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, they return to the capital with their banners and slogans. There is, of course, scant chance that Roe v. Wade will be overturned any time soon, but they march not only to influence political opinion, but also as a matter of principle. Those pouring into Washington today on trains and on buses, in church vans and in cars, are people who love their country — and who, precisely because they love their country, are appalled that its law denies the most basic protection to the unborn.
Even to those who disagree with its objects, the March for Life must appear a powerful symbol: citizens raising their voices in protest, with nothing to gain but the knowledge of having stood up for a good cause. In the great tradition of the moral gadflies responsible for most of the social change in history, they demand to be heard, especially by those who would rather not hear from them. They have no qualms about making the rest of us uncomfortable; when it comes down to it, we all ought to feel a little uncomfortable about abortion.
Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.