The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tighter abortion restrictions may really indicate the law is finally catching up to science

Antiabortion advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, on June 25, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When the Supreme Court determined in 1973 that the Constitution empowered women to abort unwanted pregnancies, the modern pro-life movement took shape. It was largely driven by religion, particularly the fundamentalist Christian belief that life is ordained by God and begins at conception — the latter concept not shared by all Christians, but fervently embraced by those inclined toward strict interpretations.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” David declares in the 139th Psalm, singing God’s praises. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Armed with that and other biblical examples of prenatal sanctification (John the Baptist leapt in the womb at the news of Jesus’ impending birth), the battle was engaged. Evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and his Moral Majority mobilized churches and helped elect a cadre of pro-life Republicans in the 1980s, all part of the Reagan revolution. Roe v. Wade has survived, but a succession of conservative lawmakers in Washington and numerous state legislatures have made getting a legal abortion increasingly difficult in many parts of the country.

There were always abortion opponents who supported their position with scientific evidence. But most pro-lifers were particularly passionate about appeals to morality, a winning tactic in a country where church attendance and belief in God were strong. In 1973, more than 70 percent of Americans claimed membership in a church, synagogue or mosque, according to Gallup, a figure that was relatively stable through the end of the 20th century.

Around 2000, faith in things not seen began to wane. By 2020, Gallup reported that for the first time less than half of Americans claimed church, synagogue or mosque affiliation. But it looks like the void is being filled. While scientific achievement has long been acknowledged and valued by most Americans, the rise of covid-19 has given science a newly powerful mandate. Health authorities’ pronouncements have a doctrinal ring: Get the vaccine or be shunned. Wear the mask or suffer the consequences.

It is in this environment, whether by chance or destiny, that the latest edition of the Supreme Court refused last week to stay a Texas law that bans most abortions after about six weeks, leading to dire warnings from abortion defenders that Roe v. Wade might be endangered. Critics say it’s because the court has taken a hard right turn. But what ends up changing the law might be science and the respect it demands in today’s world.

Advances in prenatal care are sometimes used to argue in favor of abortion, as when Down syndrome markers are identified. In some U.S. medical circles, there’s a troubling notion that a Down syndrome diagnosis should trigger terminating a pregnancy, and the practice is even more prevalent in other countries. It’s an attitude at odds with those parents who testify to the special joy such children bring to their families and the productive lives they often lead.

But overall, the leaps and bounds in prenatal science since 1973 are making it increasingly difficult to suggest that an unborn child is merely an impersonal fetus — a clump of tissue — or part of a woman’s body like an organ. Doctors today can repair or stabilize an unborn child’s defects in the womb, from tumors on the lungs to holes in the diaphragm to spina bifida to various heart defects. High-tech software that produces images in the earliest weeks of fetal development are astounding in their detail as these small humans are visibly, as the psalmist put it, “knit together.”

In this age of in utero medical miracles, the notion that the difference between termination or the gift of life is whether a baby is wanted seems increasingly absurd. It’s a standard we wouldn’t tolerate at any other stage of existence.

I’m pro-life, but I understand that an unplanned pregnancy can be a difficult and troubling event. I don’t consider my pro-choice friends to be baby killers. I’ve long believed that the best way to end abortion is not by changing the laws, but by changing hearts and minds. But eventually, laws evolve to reflect technological advances, from the digital revolution to organ donations and so much more.

Many people today will shrug off the edicts of God, if they even acknowledge his existence. But science is sacrosanct; ignore its precepts at the risk of nearly universal condemnation. Advances in prenatal technology make pro-life arguments more persuasively than the Moral Majority ever could. If the Supreme Court is indeed on the road to reversing Roe v. Wade, it may be less because the court has taken a hard right turn, and more because after nearly 50 years the law is catching up to the science.