Stepping Back from the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Lessons for Today
by John Whitehead
We are now 60 years away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The October 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba was a moment when the world came perilously close to nuclear war.
This crisis’ anniversary has new significance in 2022, as the world faces a new confrontation between the United States and Russia that poses a similar danger. US President Joseph Biden recently said that for the “first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon[s].”
The current situation gives special importance to remembering the 1962 crisis and learning whatever lessons from it that can be useful in avoiding war today. (I rely here primarily on Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 [New York: Norton, 1997].)
Two Cold War Problems
The Cuban Missile Crisis can be interpreted as arising from two overlapping Cold War problems:
Nuclear Arms Race. The United States, being the first nation to build nuclear weapons, by the early 1960s possessed a larger number of nuclear weapons and more technologically sophisticated weapons than the Soviet Union. The United States also had nuclear weapons stationed outside its borders, in various US-allied countries from which they could reach the Soviet Union relatively quickly.
Given that even a very small number of relatively low-tech nuclear weapons can be devastating in war, such numerical and technological imbalances supposedly shouldn’t matter. However, according to the paranoid logic that nuclear deterrence can encourage, these imbalances can be interpreted as giving one side an advantage. Imbalances raise the question: Could the other side use its superiority to strike first in an effort to destroy our nuclear arsenal before we can retaliate? By this logic, the Soviet Union had a problem.
Cuba. A 1958 revolution overthrew the US-backed dictator of Cuba and brought to power a new, left-wing regime led by Fidel Castro. Cuba’s relationship with the United States deteriorated, and the new regime sought closer ties with the Soviet Union, which provided Castro with military aid.
As the United States pursued covert efforts to undermine Castro’s power, Nikita Khrushchev, the preeminent Soviet leader, made repeated public pledges to defend the island against the United States. In 1960, Khrushchev even implied the Soviets would defend Cuba with nuclear weapons.
US efforts to destroy Castro’s regime culminated early in President John F. Kennedy’s administration. In April 1961, Kennedy supported an attempted invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces with the intention of overthrowing Castro. The invasion at the island’s Bay of Pigs ended in disaster, but it underlined for the Soviets the danger their Cuban ally faced. Soviet-Cuban military ties increased after the invasion, while the Kennedy administration continued working against Castro, even plotting his assassination.
US-Soviet relations worsened during 1961-62. Kennedy and Khrushchev had a hostile summit meeting in June 1961. The Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing in 1961, after a years-long moratorium. The United States soon resumed its own nuclear tests.
Amid this tense international situation, Khrushchev decided in early 1962 to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. This step could address both problems: being able to quickly strike the United States seemingly evened out the US-Soviet nuclear imbalance, and Castro’s regime would be protected from invasion. To his inner circle, Khrushchev commented, “the only way to save Cuba is to put missiles there” and that just as US weapons stationed close to the Soviet Union “are aimed at us and scare us,” Soviet missiles in Cuba would “give them back some of their own medicine” (Fursenko and Naftali, 182). The Soviet leadership agreed on May 21, 1962 to put missiles in Cuba.
The Soviets carried out their plan over the summer and early fall. By early October, Soviet forces in Cuba had over 30 missiles. Each could be armed with a 1-megaton warhead and each could hit a wide swath of the southeastern United States. The Soviets in Cuba also had 12 tactical nuclear weapons they could use if the United States attacked the island.
The crisis erupted when an American surveillance plane spotted the missiles. Kennedy learned about the missiles on October 16 and for almost a week secretly consulted his advisors on what to do. They considered trying to get rid of the missiles by bombing or invading Cuba. However, some argued the Cuban missiles had no military significance, given US nuclear superiority. Others pointed to the comparable presence of US missiles close to the Soviet Union, in allied countries such as Turkey.
Two crucial restraints helped prevent a US attack on Cuba. One was uncertainty about the missiles’ status: were any ready to launch? Could one be launched before the United States destroyed them? Another restraint was the fear the Soviets would retaliate with military action against West Berlin, a US-aligned outpost deep in Communist East Germany.
Kennedy instead chose an option that he announced in a televised speech on October 22. Calling the missiles “a definite threat to peace,” he urged Khrushchev to remove them. The United States would impose a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further “offensive military equipment” being sent there. Although his tone was confrontational, Kennedy was effectively playing for time, warning the Soviets without yet taking action against the Cuban missiles.
The Soviets responded in kind. Khrushchev sent messages to Kennedy defying the blockade, while the Soviet military raised its level of preparedness. Alongside these threatening signals, though, the Soviet leadership decided first to curtail and then stop any further military shipments to Cuba, so as not to violate the US blockade.
Behind the scenes, Americans and Soviets looked for a diplomatic resolution that would allow both sides to back down without losing. As early as October 17, Kennedy had been considering withdrawing US nuclear missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Cuban missiles’ withdrawal. Following Kennedy’s October 22 speech, US policymakers sent various messages, via a private channel, to the Soviets proposing this swap.
Khrushchev and his inner circle agreed to propose their own deal: they would withdraw the missiles if the US guaranteed not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev sent this proposal to Kennedy October 26. Khrushchev later added the Cuba-Turkey missile swap to his proposed deal.
Despite the mutual search for a peaceful resolution, the situation remained quite dangerous. Some US policymakers still advocated attacking Cuba. Had the United States done so, Soviet forces might have used their tactical nuclear weapons in response.
People lower down the chain of the command also could shape events. The Soviets had submarines armed with nuclear weapons near Cuba; on October 27, one such submarine got into a confrontation with US blockade ships. The submarine commander apparently reacted to American depth charges (intended as warnings) by considering use of a nuclear missile. He was overruled by another officer.
Probably the crisis’ most dangerous moment occurred because of unauthorized action far removed from the top policymakers. The morning of October 27, two Soviet officers in Cuba learned of an American surveillance plane overhead. They feared the plane was gathering information for an imminent US invasion, and they could not reach their commander to get instructions. They opted to shoot the plane down, killing its pilot, Rudolf Anderson. When he learned of the incident, though, Kennedy crucially decided not to retaliate.
A meeting between the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin finalized the terms of a diplomatic deal. The Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba, while the United States promised not to invade Cuba and would withdraw its missiles from Turkey (the Turkish missiles part of the deal would be a secret, though). The Soviets accepted the deal on October 28.
By year’s end, all Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba. By early 1963, the US missiles left Turkey. That same year, the two nations reached an agreement to limit nuclear testing.
Despite their justifiable mutual suspicions, fears, and hostility, policymakers on both sides were ultimately able to defuse a confrontation that could have spiraled into nuclear war. I will suggest a few lessons from the episode that are applicable today, including to current US-Russian relations.
Show caution. War could have broken out had either side acted recklessly or tried to force a showdown. The US decision not to attack Cuba and the Soviet decision to avoid violation of the blockade helped prevent such consequences.
Communicate. US-Soviet communications, both official and private, were essential to a resolution. Private communication was especially important in reaching agreements that couldn’t be discussed publicly. Recognition of communication’s importance led to the US and Soviet Union, in 1963, establishing a special “hotline” for 24-hour communication.
Leave an exit. Resolving the crisis required that each nation get something that allowed its leaders to claim a victory. As Kennedy later said, “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
Beware uncontrollable situations. As the killing of Major Anderson showed, events can overtake policymakers. Large-scale, high-tension military confrontations raise the probability of violence breaking out because of minor incidents that escalate. This probability is a reason such confrontations should be avoided and quickly cooled down if they do occur. As Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev after the crisis, “I think that you and I, with our heavy responsibilities for the maintenance of peace, were aware that developments were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable” (quoted in Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power [New York: Touchstone, 1993], 425).
All these principles are worth bearing in mind in future international relations. And I will add one more, the most important:
As long as nuclear weapons exist, humanity is in grave danger. The destructive power of nuclear weapons means international conflicts, even ones that start relatively small, could kill billions and devastate our world. A confrontation over Cuba had the potential to end civilization, just as the present confrontation over Ukraine does.
This last lesson should give us fresh motivation to try to end the nuclear danger, or at least try to reduce it to the lowest level possible. We won’t always have the good luck we had in 1962.
For more of John Whitehead’s posts on nuclear dangers, see:
A Global Effort to Protect Life: The UN Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons
The Persisting Threat of Nuclear Weapons: A Brief Primer
Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue
The Danger That Faces Us All: Hiroshima and Nagasaki after 75 Years
Catastrophe by Mistake: The Button and the Danger of Accidental Nuclear War
“The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism
Lethal from the Start: Uranium Mining’s Danger to the Most Vulnerable
Wasting Money on Instruments of Death: Nuclear Weapons in the 2022 Budget
A Hidden Cost of the Ukraine War: How Russia’s Invasion Encourages the Spread of Nuclear Weapons
Unholy Trinity: The Terrible Consequences of the First Nuclear Test
Fallout at Home Base: Nuclear Testing within the United States
Seeing Is Believing: Films to Inspire a Consistent Life Viewpoint
by Mary Liepold
I want war, and preparations for war, to be unthinkable. I want abortion to be unthinkable, as well as racism, capital punishment, and all other offenses against human dignity. The Consistent Life Network’s statement of purpose says, “We seek a revolution in thinking and feeling.” In a time of deepening division, we want to transform the way people think and feel while we also reclaim common ground.
I believe the arts are the best way to do that.
Books are my first love, but for our grandchildren – 22% of the population and 100% of the future – newer media matter more. So at least a few times a week, I pry myself away from the printed page. I’ve been working on the resource list for Consistent Life’s youth education program, CL Kids!, collecting resources for young people in various formats, I’ve especially kept an eye open for movies that can change the culture by moving hearts and minds. Here are a handful that have moved me lately, arranged from oldest to newest. They’re all available on Netflix and other streaming services.
I hope you’ll watch one that appeals to you, let me know what you think, and recommend others good enough for our children and the people who shape their lives.
Steve Martin and the luminous Mary Steenburgen headlined the big, four-generation cast of the 1989 comedy Parenthood. The phrase that came to my mind as the credits rolled, 33 years ago, was life-affirming. After a recent re-watch, I stand by that. The humor is raunchy, goofy, and often over the top, but the values ring true. At 15, 12, and 10, our local grandchildren are still a bit young to watch it. I may well add it to the Thanksgiving menu for older members of the family, though.
The Great Debaters, released in 2007, stars Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. It’s loosely based on a little-known true story. In 1935, a debate team from a small Black college in Texas went up against a team from America’s bastion of white privilege, and won. If you’ve seen this, Hidden Figures, Just Mercy, and perhaps the poetic 1991 indie Daughters of the Dust, and encouraged someone else to see them, you’ve opened at least a few hearts and minds to the evils of racism, which some have called America’s original sin.
A thoughtful 2011 Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar, opened my eyes to the cost of what my long-ago teachers called moral relativism. I wrote about it in a CLN blog six years ago, and I would love to discuss it with other viewers.
The Armor of Light is an Emmy-award-winning documentary made in 2015, about an Evangelical pastor who befriends the mother of a gunshot victim. Pastor Rob Schenck founded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, DC to influence members of Congress and, according to his online bio, “reform the Evangelical church.” The film shows Schenck’s opposition to abortion widen to include other epidemic forms of violence.
Hacksaw Ridge is a 2016 movie based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist who saved 75 lives in the World War II Battle of Okinawa. Though Doss joined up willingly, because he loved his country, he was determined not to kill or even carry a weapon. The army and his fellow recruits were equally determined to change his mind. In the end, he changed theirs – at least for a while. War still eats first, in this hungry world. That’s why I became an activist.
Living in the DC area since 1968, I carried my babies to demonstrations in a backpack with a Question Authority bumper sticker. (And, oh, how they did!) I thought I’d been tuned in to all the major protest movements of the last five decades. Then I saw Crip Camp (2020), recounting the early years of the continuing struggle for the human rights of people with disabilities. I hope you will too.
My newest favorite, Look Both Ways, is a rom com, and fairly fresh on Netflix. I know from the reviews in Decider and The Guardian that it irks the mainstream culture. It will undoubtedly irk many readers of this blog for the same reason: because it looks both ways. Whichever side people see it from, though, they tend to agree that it is well made and fun to watch.
The plot hinges on a pregnancy test, during a college graduation party. At that point the plot splits into two streams, two alternate possibilities. It could get confusing for the viewer but it doesn’t, partly because the film-makers use a subtly different color scheme for each version of the young protagonist’s future. I liked it because it counters the mainstream assumption that an unplanned pregnancy is always an unmitigated disaster, and because it left me smiling. I’m eager to hear what you think.
And please, check out the CL Kids Resource List on the CLN website. Do you have additions? Corrections? Quibbles? Send them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s work in progress. The team welcomes your recommendations for films, books, music, and other art forms, as well as curricula and kindred organizations. Let’s keep this revolution rolling!
For more of our posts on movies, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)
Hollywood Movie Insights II (Never Look Away, The Report, and Dark Waters)
Movies with Racism Themes: “Gosnell” and “The Hate U Give”
The Darkest Hour: “Glorifying” War?
The Message of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”: Abortion Gets Sexual Predators Off the Hook
Justice Littered with Injustice: Viewing Just Mercy in a Charged Moment
Slavery: Removing the Exception
See our Peace & Life Referendums website.
by Rachel MacNair
State constitutions from the late 1800s often followed the example of the times by prohibiting slavery except for those convicted of a crime.
Measures to remove this exception were placed on the ballot by the legislature in Nebraska and Utah for the November 3, 2020 ballot. Both passed resoundingly. Colorado had already passed such a measure in 2018, which also passed resoundingly.
The Alabama legislature has put a recompiled state constitution on their ballot, in which the section on slavery and involuntary servitude makes the prohibition complete.
The Louisiana legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Oregon legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Tennessee legislature has put removing the exception on their ballot.
The Vermont legislature has put removing the exception for indentured servitude on their ballot. In Vermont, the exception isn’t for crime but for debt.
As of early 2022, the states that still have the exception for slavery in their state constitutions are:
Arkansas, Article II, Section 27
Indiana, Article I, Section 37
Kentucky, Article I, Section 25
Minnesota, Article I, Section 2
Mississippi, Article III, Section 15
Nevada, Article I, Section 17
North Dakota, Article I, Section 6
Oregon, Article I, Section 34 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Tennessee, Article I, Section 33 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Wisconsin, Article I, Section 2
In addition, these states prohibit “involuntary servitude” with an exception for those convicted of a crime:
Alabama, Article I, Section 32 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
California, Article I, Section 6
Georgia, Article I, Paragraph XX
Iowa, Article I, Section 23
Kansas, Bill of Rights, Section 6
Louisiana, Article I, Section 3 – on the ballot 11/8/2022
Michigan, Article I, Section 9
North Carolina, Article I, Section 17
Ohio, Article I, Section 6
This all follows what’s said in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On June 18, 2021, in anticipation of Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday, an Abolition Amendment was introduced.
There’s been a long-standing tradition of pro-lifers comparing abortion to the way slavery was practiced in the United States, on the grounds that both require dehumanizing. The dehumanization is so extreme that killing human beings – unborn children and enslaved people — is legally allowed. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in both the Roe v. Wade and the Dred Scott decisions that certain classes of human beings were outside legal protection.
While abortion defenders object to the analogy, they do so by defending abortion, not by defending slavery. Naturally – they share the understanding that holding people in slavery is appalling. Nowadays, that’s the common attitude in the United States.
People generally understand that the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. Several state constitutions, drafted in the years soon thereafter, did the same. These were well after the principle was established nationally. They simply added such a provision to the state constitution.
But neither the nation nor many of these states abolished slavery entirely. They had an exception: people duly convicted of a crime.
The immediate impact in the U.S. was that slavery was able to continue. African Americans would be arrested for “vagrancy,” which means essentially being arrested for being unemployed. If that’s the “crime” that got a person into prison, and someone in prison could be enslaved, then slavery hadn’t really ended.
More recently, the use of cheap prison labor for manufactured goods used by government and nonprofits has meant that prisoners are slaves. In some states, they’re paid nothing; in most states, they get a few cents per hour, and the highest is $2 an hour.
There was a prisoners’ strike against these conditions in 2018.
While their lives are legally protected, they’re still being exploited. The working conditions can include physical harm and even avoidable deaths. Such is the nature of treating people as slaves. People in prison should be treated as people in prison.
Kinds of harm are all connected when dehumanizing is done. If prisoners must do involuntary servitude, they have little pay for themselves, and no pay to send their families. They haven’t always developed the kind of working skills that will help them get employment once out of prison.
Anything that harms families this way will harm a spirit of welcoming new members to the family. That is, these conditions increase the danger of abortions being done in an atmosphere where they’re so readily available.
For more of our comment on the Dred Scott decision, see
Our Experience with Overturning Terrible Court Decisions
For more of our posts on referendums, see:
Referendums to Reduce Poverty and Their Impact on Abortion & Euthanasia
What History Shows: The Consistent Life Ethic Works for the Pro-life Side in Referendums
For more extensive information and updates on referendums involving consistent-life issues for upcoming elections, see our website:
Referendums to Reduce Poverty and Their Impact on Abortion & Euthanasia
See our Peace & Life Referendums website.
Raising the Minimum Wage
On ballot in 2022: Nebraska, Nevada
Raising the minimum wage will help Pregnancy Resource Centers (PRCs) to have an easier time working with pregnant women for prenatal care and new mothers for women’s and children’s health care. The more women are earning, the more PRCs can help. Also, the more the father and other family members are earning, the more PRCs can help.
Even for those who never cross paths with the PRCs, a minimum wage increase means they feel more supported in choosing life. They have more practical resources available.
On ballot in 2022: South Dakota
In 2020, Medicaid Expansion was on the ballot in Oklahoma and Missouri. In both cases, it passed by narrow margins. Previously, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, and Utah had also passed the expansion at the ballot box when state legislatures refused to do so.
What is Medicaid Expansion?
It simply means allowing more people to the receive Medicaid. People qualify for Medicaid based on their income, and this would raise the amount of income needed to qualify. So more low-income people could enroll, because they can make a little more income and still qualify.
- Helping Pregnant Women Choose Life
Pregnancy Resource Centers need to be able to refer pregnant women for prenatal care and new mothers for women’s and children’s health care. The more people who have access to the Medicaid program, the more PRCs can help.
Even for those who never cross paths with the PRCs, the fact that healthcare is more available to them, both prenatally and postnatally, means they feel more supported in choosing life. They have more practical resources available.
- Discouraging Euthanasia
Paying for medical care and hospice are nonviolent alternatives to “hastened death,” and people should feel comfortable using those options without a sense of being a financial burden on their families.
But here’s another crucial point: some people won’t call the ambulance or visit the doctor when they really need to, because they don’t feel they can afford it. When their own scarce money is at stake, they may have too high a standard for when they need to have something looked at or when they must rush to the hospital.
When the disease or injury festers, it gets worse. It’ s not merely that people suffer needlessly, but that they can then get into a medical condition so bad that “pulling the plug” starts to be discussed. Catching problems early is more likely to happen when those on Medicaid feel they can afford to catch them early.
- People with Disabilities
Since specific disabilities often require specific medical care, having more people with those disabilities be able to afford the care will of course be crucial for them.
One of the common reasons offered for abortion of unborn children with disabilities, or “assisted suicide” for those later in life, is that it saves money over providing the care needed to let them live. This is an astonishingly callous attitude toward money; when used the right way, money’s intended to be a way of facilitating help, not an excuse for avoiding help. Having more people eligible to get that needed help is a life-affirming alternative to such cold-heartedness.
- Giving Children Needed Medical Care
In addition to helping pregnant women choose life directly by not having deliberate abortions, being sure they get good prenatal care can also prevent “spontaneous” abortions – the medical term for what’s more commonly called miscarriages.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
Not on ballot in 2022 (Colorado passed it in 2020). Current legislation in the U.S. Congress (such as this by Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney) is considering methods of doing this.
What is paid Family and Medical Leave?
Family Leave means a period of time off work, usually a set number of weeks, to care for family. It includes parental leave – for one or both parents – to take time off to attend to a newborn or newly adopted child. It includes taking time off to care for family members with sudden medical needs; this especially helps people with elderly parents or any ill relatives.
The United States passed a requirement for employers of over 50 people to at least offer unpaid leave to employees (see the speech below in support of the bill). However, while this guaranteed people the right to return to their jobs when the leave period was over, they still had to go without income in the meantime.
States may offer referendums about Family and Medical Leave insurance, which would allow people who desperately need it to be paid during the period when they’re working hard, but for their families rather than their employers.
- Reducing Poverty
For those of low enough income that having a good amount of savings isn’t workable, not having pay can be a severe hardship. If anyone simply can’t afford to go without the pay, then the newborn or adopted baby or ill relative will need to go without family help. Since such a low-income person obviously can’t afford to pay for professional help either, then the family member suffers one form of poverty by having less care from a family member, or the worker suffers another form of poverty by prioritizing their family but having insufficient money.
- Helping Pregnant Women Choose Life
Having the ability to take a few weeks off for a newborn child eases the burden some. It also communicates clearly that society is supportive of the choice for life. Having the father be able to help with the newborn is both good for the mother and a great benefit to the father. Having a set-up to encourage both parents to bond with a child is a sure way of valuing that child’s life, from conception on.
- Discouraging Euthanasia
When elderly parents or other relatives feel lonely, or suffer more because a family member that could be there to help isn’t, or have worse medical outcomes because that family member can’t afford to be there, or feel guilty about a family member having to lose income to care for them, then the message given about the value of their lives is not one we want to be conveying.
From a speech by Rep. Henry Hyde
in the U.S. House of Representatives
November 13, 1991
Madam Chairman, as one who shares a conservative vision for our society, I don’t think my support for family leave is aberrational, but rather that it’s consistent with traditional family values. The family supplies the moral glue that holds society together; it is the central institution that stands between us and social disintegration. . .
And so, what to do? Well, here is legislation that in a small way helps reinforce the family by humanizing the relationship between the employer and employee. Capitalism with a human face is an imperative, not an imposition. Oh, yes, it is an intrusion –and that government truly does govern best that governs least – but the law is also a teacher, and the lesson that family leave teaches is that children and parents aren’t always the last consideration as we try to fashion a caring and humane society in which to live and work. Capital formation and entrepreneurship are important to our economy, but so are the people who do the work.
We conservatives know that the struggle for freedom is the struggle against big government, but I don’t trust human nature enough to be a libertarian, and I believe that, at minimum, government exists to protect the weak from the strong, and that’s why, whether it’s a defenseless preborn baby whose mother is using crack cocaine or a pregnant woman who needs her job, there are human values at stake that government ought to protect.
Blind adherence to an abstract principle of nonintervention has spawned isolationism in the world and isolation in the workplace. The people who need this law are the least likely to abuse it, because they need their paycheck.
This legislation ameliorates the “Sophie’s Choice” a working pregnant woman must face – her job or her child . . .
What History Shows: The Consistent Life Ethic Works for the Pro-life Side in Referendums
This post is also a page on our Peace & Life Referendums site.
by Rachel MacNair
Before the Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, there were three referendums to legalize abortion in individual U.S. states:
1970- 56% voted yes
1972 – 61% voted no
1972 – 78% voted no
So legalization won in a state where the consistent-life perspective wasn’t prominent – yet lost, and lost by a good margin, in those two campaigns where the opposition did use consistent-life arguments. See the book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement before Roe v. Wade, by Daniel K Williams, pp. 190-194
Proposal B would have legalized abortion for any reason up to 20 weeks, but was soundly defeated. It was put on the ballot with the needed 300,000 signatures. A September poll in Michigan had abortion legalization winning by 57-37%. That suggests the campaigns against the measures may have been quite effective.
The Michigan group “Voices for the Unborn” produced a campaign brochure saying:
In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K Williams comments:
Voices of the Unborn’s willingness to link the pro-life cause with opposition to capital punishment may have stemmed in part from . . . its director, state representative Rosetta Ferguson, an African American Democrat from Detroit . . . She was chair of the House Civil Rights Committee [of the Michigan House of Representatives] and had authored a bill to require Michigan’s social studies textbooks to include coverage of black history, which she considered one of her proudest legislative accomplishments. Having grown up in the Deep South during the Depression, Ferguson was acutely aware of poverty and racial discrimination, and she feared the consequences of legalized abortion for women who were black and poor (page 192).
Once Proposal B was so resoundingly defeated, the Detroit Free Press said opponents had pulled off “one of the most startling and successful campaigns in Michigan political history” (November 9, 1972).
Williams says in the case of North Dakota:
[Al Fortman] enjoyed an excellent relationship with several of the state’s Catholic bishops and forged ties with some of the state’s Protestant ministers by linking the pro-life issue to other social justice causes, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, that interested mainline Protestant clergy (page 193).
Therefore . . .
While there were obviously many factors leading to success in these campaigns, the consistent-life approach seems to have real-world effectiveness in election results; the two out of the three campaigns that took this approach were the ones that pro-lifers won, and won soundly. That is, connecting abortion to other forms of violence that people oppose seems to be at least one good avenue of persuasion.
For more in our blog on a positive approach to voting, see:
How Consistent-life Advocacy Would Benefit from Ranked-Choice Voting
For current referendums, see our website:
Book Review – Rehumanize: A Vision to Secure Human Rights for All
by Lois Kerschen
If you want to understand the theory behind the Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) as well as how to practice it, Aimee Murphy’s book, Rehumanize: A Vision to Secure Human Rights for All, is a vital resource.
Remarkably, she manages to explain CLE with clarity and simplicity. Its multiple references to philosophers, religious leaders, and social researchers don’t make it a slog to read. It is easy to understand, and even the footnotes can be interesting. There may be 507 of them, but they either add brief, interesting adjunct information or they serve as evidence of her research, thus adding validity to her claims.
The founder of Rehumanize International, Aimee Murphy uses this book to educate and to share her passionate belief in the innate dignity of every human being. Paramount to this belief is that the ultimate insults to this dignity are violence and killing. Peace comes when we respect each other’s value as a person.
The book proposes ways to end violence in:
- Reproduction (in-vitro fertilization and abortion)
- War (war and military torture)
- Response to Crime (police brutality, torture in the justice system, and the death penalty)
- Response to Disability (euthanasia and filicide, assisted suicide).
Each section defines the topic, identifies the violence, gives an analysis and brief history of the culture and policies pertaining to the topic, and then recommends solutions.
A very useful feature of each chapter is the nonviolent counterpoints that Murphy provides in answer to the most common arguments against the CLE point of view.
Each chapter ends with a short list of possible discussion questions and suggestions for further reading on the topic. Thus, the book can be used for a class or discussion group.
Murphy then presents a review on ways to end dehumanization and rehumanize the world. Here, she covers the changes needed to combat ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia/transphobia, racism, and sexism.
The book concludes with suggestions for putting the Consistent Life Ethic into action. Basically, she recommends living your CLE convictions, even to the point of interrupting conversations to suggest replacing biased words with unbiased alternatives. She also recommends building and transforming your community and building a culture of encounter.
Unless you have written a truly worthwhile book, you don’t get rave reviews from Martin Sheen (who participated in the book launch video), Jeannie Gaffigan, Gloria Purvis, Helen Alvare, and leaders of various CLE organizations. Murphy is worthy of the praise and the faith of the Magenta Series Editor, Charles Camosy (a prolific and much-admired author and professor of Ethics). Readers can be sure of a captivating read and useful material in Rehumanize: A Vision to Secure Human Rights for All.
Currently, Aimee Murphy is on a nationwide tour with her book (until Dec. 14). You can find out more and check her schedule. She is giving talks for low- or no-cost and welcomes your help to set up and advertise for these impactful events. If you live in any of the cities on her tour list, please reach out to email@example.com or Herb Geraghty at firstname.lastname@example.org to help lay the groundwork for an awesome event in your community.
The book is available for purchase from Rehumanize International.
For more book reviews on our blog, see:
Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement Before Roe v. Wade
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know
The Tragedy of Carrie Buck: A Review of Imbeciles
How to Move from Theory to Practice: Reading “A Consistent Life”
A Way Beyond the Abortion Wars?
Catastrophe by Mistake: The Button and the Danger of Accidental Nuclear War
Fallout at Home Base: Nuclear Testing within the United States
This month is the 30th anniversary of the last nuclear test, September 1992.
by John Whitehead
The United States conducted the world’s first test of a nuclear weapon in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The test was followed in August by the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although the wartime use of nuclear weapons has mercifully never been repeated since 1945, nuclear testing was repeated. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the United States would ultimately conduct 1,030 test detonations of nuclear weapons. These tests took place above ground, underground, and underwater in a variety of locations around the world, including Pacific islands. The vast majority of tests took place within the United States, though, and left a predictably harmful legacy.
The Nevada Test Site
Most nuclear testing within the United States was in Nevada. In 1950, the Truman administration designated a test site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The test site originally encompassed 680 square miles of land; it would expand over the decades. The inaugural test at the Nevada Test Site, of a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb, took place in January 1951.
Over the next few years, about 100 above-ground nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada site. The average bomb yield of these tests was 8.6 kilotons, somewhat less than that of the bombs dropped on Japan. Nuclear testing was also conducted underground, with all testing eventually moving underground following the 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty that prohibited above-ground testing. Nuclear testing in Nevada served variously to determine the power and effects of weapons, to study fallout’s effects, and even to investigate possible peaceful uses of nuclear weapons, such as for mining.
The nuclear tests inevitably resulted in serious health threats from radioactive fallout. Winds carried the fallout of above-ground tests for thousands of miles. Even underground tests sometimes vented significant amounts of radiation. The underground “Storax Sedan” test of July 1962 produced the largest radioactive fallout contamination of any nuclear test within the United States: radiation was subsequently detected in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
A particularly dangerous element of the testing fallout was the radioactive form of iodine, I-131. A series of tests in 1957 released especially large amounts of this element into the atmosphere. I-131 can contaminate the grazing grounds of livestock and be transferred to human beings through milk. If nursing mothers are exposed to I-131, they can pass the radioactive element to their children through breast milk.
To say that many people did not initially appreciate the threat from testing would be an understatement. Detonations from above-ground nuclear tests were visible from up to 100 miles away and subsequently became tourist attractions in nearby Las Vegas. Hotels and casinos would promote the opportunity for patrons to view the nuclear explosions.
The spectators extended beyond Las Vegas. Danielle Stephens of Kingman, Arizona, about 150 miles from the test site, watched nuclear tests when she was young. She recalls once traveling, along with her father, brother, and uncle, to watch a test from a mountain. “Back then, no one thought the tests were dangerous,” she commented.
One infamous incident was the above-ground “Harry” nuclear bomb test of May 1953. The bomb produced a far greater explosive yield than US authorities were expecting. Winds carried the fallout to St. George, Utah, and surrounding areas. Authorities were sluggish in issuing warnings to people in the affected communities, though, and did not advise people to refrain temporarily from consuming local crops or milk that might have been contaminated.
Health Effects of Testing
Health problems emerged over time among western American communities close to the Nevada Test Site. A 1984 study of Utah residents near the site found higher cancer rates than expected, including leukemia rates five times above expectations. Cancer rates in St. George specifically rose between 1950 and 1980.
In Arizona, Danielle Stephens witnessed over 30 members of her family develop various cancers. Most of them died as a result. Stephens was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2020.
Along with civilian residents of nearby areas, military personnel were exposed to the tests’ fallout. Military personnel were involved in observing tests and cleaning up their aftermath. Sometimes they took part in war games, meant to simulate conditions in a possible nuclear war, that involved entering a fallout zone after a test. A 1999 study by National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine subsequently found higher death rates from leukemia and other cancers among service personnel exposed to the Nevada tests than personnel serving at the time who were not involved in the tests.
The harmful effects of nuclear testing received legal recognition in 1984, when a US District Court judge ruled that testing in the 1950s had led to the deaths of 10 people and that government authorities had been negligent in their conduct of the tests. This negligence included failure to warn people in Nevada and nearby states about the tests’ danger.
In 1990, the US Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which required government compensation to people who had developed diseases such as leukemia and thyroid cancer because of testing fallout. By 2018, over $2 billion in compensation had been approved for tens of thousands of people harmed by nuclear testing, as well as to people involved in other aspects of nuclear weapons’ production, such as uranium mining.
As welcome as such compensation is, RECA has limitations. The compensation does not extend to people harmed by the original Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico. RECA compensation is also limited to residents of only certain parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Stephens and other Kingman residents, for example, are not covered by RECA.
Further, the compensation is currently intended for the original generation of people affected by the Nevada tests. It does not cover the testing victims’ children or grandchildren, many of whom feel they have experienced disabilities or other health challenges because of the testing.
A bill (H.R.5338/S.2798) introduced in 2021 would address at least some of these limitations. The proposed legislation would expand RECA coverage to more areas in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona as well as other test-affected regions. The legislation would also increase compensation amounts and provide medical benefits while also expanding compensation coverage for those involved in uranium mining. Please consider contacting your representatives in the House and Senate to urge them to support this bill.
Beyond finally providing adequate compensation to those affected by nuclear weapons testing, the United States should definitively end such tests. The last US nuclear weapons test took place 30 years ago this month, in September 1992. The United States has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but never ratified it. The Senate should finally ratify the treaty and thus legally prohibit further nuclear testing.
History shows that nuclear weapons don’t need to be used in wartime to be harmful. Testing such weapons also has a terrible cost. Let’s work to ensure no one else suffers from nuclear tests.
For similar posts on nuclear weapons, see:
The Persisting Threat of Nuclear Weapons: A Brief Primer
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue
Is an Embryo More Important than a Woman?
by Rachel MacNair
As I wade through the avalanche of post-Dobbs media coverage, I note the familiar pattern of being totally oblivious to what the objection to induced abortion is: that it kills a human being. While there exist arguments that what’s killed isn’t a human being, and other arguments that such killing is justifiable, most of the coverage ignores the point entirely.
This is customary when committing violence. Victims of war are commonly invisible as well. Killed by bombs, drone strikes, bullets – it all goes under “defense.” And therefore, they say, freedom.
But another common tack is that a woman is more important than a mere embryo. A related argument is that pro-lifers favor “forced birth.”
When considering the relationship between a mother and a prenatal baby, the mother’s decisions are the ones that determine what happens. The mother gets to decide where the prenatal baby goes. Studying in class, frolicking on the beach, working hard in an office or a factory – mom’s decision. The baby is just along for the ride. The mother decides what part of the country they live in, what they’ll eat, who they’ll interact with – everything. She’ll decide whether she’s raising the baby after birth, or making an adoption plan or other arrangements. The baby has to go with whatever she decides.
Yes, the woman or teen mom is more important when it comes to decision-making. The baby isn’t developed enough to figure out such things.
No one is proposing that an embryo or fetus is more important than other human beings. The argument is that the right to not be killed is more important than any rights that are lesser than the right to not be killed. No one even has any other rights if they don’t have the right to not be killed.
When Americans were fighting wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the number of Americans soldiers’ deaths would be reported in American media. The deaths of local people weren’t reported, as if they weren’t as important. But they were every bit as important. Wars kill people deliberately, and every single killing in these wars was wrong. Every person was important and had the right to not be killed, be they soldiers on either side or civilians, adults or teens or children or babies. Every single one.
Yet when it comes to decision-making, there’s nothing wrong with Vietnamese deciding that only Vietnamese can vote in Vietnamese elections and Americans can’t. The same goes for every other country. Citizens of age are more important as decision-makers for public policy than non-citizens or the under-age.
That doesn’t make it ok to kill or injure immigrants or kids.
“Importance” in decision-making is a separate issue from everyone having a right to not be killed.
Just about every single birth that has occurred throughout human history has been a forced birth.
The fetus was comfortable where she was, and now there’s a sudden cold and a startling slap of light. And when she lets it be known right away and in no uncertain terms that she objects, we don’t say, “oh, dear, she doesn’t like this, we’d better put her back in.” To the contrary, we’re pleased. A robust cry means good health. So thorough is our understanding that the fetus-suddenly-turned-infant will object to birth that if she doesn’t, we worry. That’s a danger sign of poor health.
Of course, this isn’t what people who use the term “forced birth” mean. They’re referring to the mother. But here again, the term is odd. What pregnant woman wants to remain pregnant indefinitely? I kept reminding myself at the last stage of my pregnancy that the kid was a heck of a lot easier to care for inside than outside my womb. It didn’t matter. I really did want to get to birth. I daresay it would be hard to find a pregnant woman that wouldn’t find birth a better idea than keeping the baby inside endlessly.
Again, that’s not what they mean. What they mean is that they believe it’s not actually a birth if the baby comes out earlier and dead instead of later and alive. But they won’t say it that bluntly.
What if the Choice is – Which One Gets to Live?
Historically, childbirth could be dangerous enough that a midwife had to choose between mother and child. Fortunately, medicine has come a long way.
There are millions of pro-life women, so there are large numbers who have faced life-threatening pregnancies. We have every bit as much of an interest in medical care for these situations as everyone else.
Here are some situations where pregnancy might endanger the mother’s life:
The embryo never gets to the fetal stage, but is stuck outside the womb, usually in the Fallopian tubes. That baby has to be removed immediately, and won’t survive the process. She wouldn’t survive if left where she is either. There is no viable pregnancy.
Meanwhile, women who are heartbroken for the baby are a lot better off having pro-life doctors who can sympathize with them.
It’s a bit confusing that the medical term for miscarriage is “spontaneous” abortion. So we need to say induced abortion is the practice we object to.
But it’s not the medical procedures involved in induced abortion that are the problem. It’s using those procedures to kill the baby. If the baby is already dead, then of course those procedures are needed to clear out the corpse that isn’t coming out on its own.
Again, many women truly need doctors to be sympathetic that a baby died; treating the child as mere medical waste can be cruel.
Medical Care for the Mother that Endangers the Baby
Conditions such as cancer or diabetes require careful management. But the baby isn’t going to do well without a healthy mother, and getting needed medical care isn’t an induced abortion nor an attempt to injure the child.
When the Pregnancy Endangers the Mother and the Baby is Old Enough to Survive
An emergency C-section takes about an hour. Inducing labor could take a few hours. The normal late-term abortion is a two-day procedure due to the need to dilate the cervix. Getting the baby out dead rather than alive isn’t better for the mother’s biological health.
In the case of a partial-birth abortion, they start the birth process and then pause it to punch a hole in the kid’s skull. How can pausing in the middle possibly be better for the mother’s biological health than just pulling the baby out without delay?
If a C-section or induced labor isn’t ideal for the baby because she’s coming out too soon, then that’s a circumstance to take into account when assessing the medical situation. But of course it’s important to save the mother’s life, and to try to save the baby’s too. If it can’t be done, then if medical care is competent at least there was no deliberate attempt to kill the baby.
The Baby’s Going to Die Soon, But Hasn’t Yet
This is the one that’s tricky, and the one that has the most horror stories in the press. But again, separating the child from the mother so she doesn’t threaten her mother’s life is intending to save someone’s life, not intending to kill a child. As with euthanasia, which can also be quite tricky, intention matters.
And to those doctors who’ve been talked about in the mainstream press’s horror stories because they’re afraid of the local prosecutor if they do competent medical care in these situations, I say: fear more the malpractice suit.
Remember, pregnant pro-life women will find themselves in such dire circumstances at roughly the same rate as other pregnant women. And activist women are all the more likely to file malpractice suits.
Finally: When the Claim is Actually a Trick
Why do legislators often take a strict and skeptical view about the “life-of-the-mother” exception? In pre-Roe days, it was often a loophole, a bold-faced lie, for doing any abortions at all.
I’d say that actually, medical personnel who try to use a life-of-the-mother exception as a dishonest cover for any abortions don’t need so much to fear the local prosecutor, who’d have a hard time making a case. Those personnel need to fear the women to whom they’re giving abortions.
Women who’ve had abortions have been joining the pro-life movement in droves all along. Pro-life conferences commonly have women telling their abortion stories – negatively, of course. Therapy groups for women who were traumatized by their abortions are a major part of what the pro-life movement does.
This is one of the major reasons pro-lifers keep saying we don’t want women prosecuted for obtaining abortions: we’re practically the lobby group for those women with negative experience.
And we know very well that these women are the ones who are most crucial to enforcing the laws. They have the needed knowledge, and once they join the pro-life movement, they have the motivation.
For similar posts, see:
What Do Men Have to Say on Abortion?
No Combat Experience, No Opinion: Parallels in Pro-bombing and Pro-choice Rhetoric
How Abortion is Useful for Rape Culture
A Pro-Life Feminist Critique of the “Rape and Incest Exception”
Abortion Facilitates Sex Abuse: Documentation
Abortion and People with Disabilities
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. This anti-discrimination legislation should have had a positive effect on perceptions of the disabled. For those well beyond infancy, it did.
But there was a dramatic decrease in the birth rate for Down Syndrome babies. A study on media framing, 1998-2006, showed disability was presented in negative terms. There were positive portrayals of prenatal testing, so that when there was a disability diagnosis, the pregnancy was terminated.
Therefore, the ready availability of abortion and its positive portrayal sabotages the cause of disability rights.
The Replaceable Fetus: A Reflection on Abortion and Disability
Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Disability Studies Quarterly:
Although I self-identify as pro-choice, I do believe certain instances of abortion can be classified as, in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s words, indecent. . . . In particular, I am concerned with cases where fetuses that had been thus far welcomed and loved by their respective community are suddenly regarded as candidates for abortion simply because they may have been diagnosed with a disability. That is, I am worried about cases where disability is deemed sufficient grounds for dehumanizing a being who had been, up until that point, embraced.
Disability Rights and Selective Abortion
Martha Saxton, Gender and Justice in the Gene Age (conference)
While today’s feminists are not responsible for the eugenic biases of their fore-mothers, some of these prejudices have persisted or have gone unchallenged in the reproductive rights movement today. Consequently many women with disabilities feel alienated from this movement. On the other hand some pro-choice feminists felt so deeply alienated from the disability community that they have been willing to claim, “The right wing wants to force us to have defective babies.” Clearly there is work to be done. . . .
The fact is, it is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ostracization and lack of accommodation which follow, that make life difficult. The oppression, one way or another, is what’s most disabling about disability. . .
But many parents of disabled children have spoken up to validate the joys and satisfactions of raising a disabled child. A vast literature of books and articles by these parents confirm the view that discriminatory attitudes make raising a disabled child much more difficult than the actual logistics of their unique care. . . How is it possible to defend selective abortion on the basis of “a woman’s right to choose” when this “choice” is so constrained by oppressive values and attitudes? . . . For those with “disability-positive” attitudes, the analogy with sex-selection is obvious. Oppressive assumptions, not inherent characteristics, have devalued who this fetus will grow into.
Pregnancy with a Physical Disability: One Psychologist’s Journey.
Erin E. Andrews, Spotlight on Disability Newsletter
When I found out I was pregnant, I was overjoyed, but also apprehensive. I am a congenital triple amputee who uses a power wheelchair for mobility. I was less concerned about the effects of my disability, and more concerned about the attitudes of others toward my pregnancy. As a rehabilitation psychologist, I am well aware that women with disabilities face barriers to reproductive health and that social biases exist which portray women with disabilities as asexual, infertile, and incapable as mothers.
Those advocating the ready availability of abortion have also often used the same principle to approve the idea that people with disabilities might benefit from physician-assisted suicide.
For a disability-rights group with opinions about this, see
For more of our posts on disability rights, see:
How Ableism Led (and Leads) to Abortion
How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled
Roe v. Wade: Legal Scholars Comment
These quotations, in chronological order, come entirely from legal experts who approve of abortion legalization.
The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade
John Hart Ely, Yale Law Journal, 82, 920, 935-937 (1973)
Roe “is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.”
What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. Nor is it explainable in terms of the unusual political impotence of the group judicially protected vis-à-vis the interest that legislatively prevailed over it . . . At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.
The Supreme Court, 1972 Term—Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law
Laurence Tribe, Harvard Law Review, 87, 1, 7, (1973)
One of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.
Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
North Carolina Law Review, 1985
Roe, I believe, would have been more acceptable as a judicial decision if it had not gone beyond a ruling on the extreme statute before the court . . . Heavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict.
The Lingering Problems with Roe v. Wade
Edward Lazarus, Former clerk to Harry Blackmun, Find Law Legal Commentary, Oct. 3, 2002
As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible. I say this as someone utterly committed to the right to choose, as someone who believes such a right has grounding elsewhere in the Constitution instead of where Roe placed it, and as someone who loved Roe’s author like a grandfather. . . .
[W]hen Democratic senators oppose a judicial appointment because of the nominee’s opposition to Roe, they not only endorse but make a litmus test out of one of the most intellectually suspect constitutional decisions of the modern era. They practically require that a judicial nominee sign on to logic that is, at best, questionable, and at worst, disingenuous and results-oriented. In doing so, they select not for faithful, but for unfaithful, constitutional interpreters to people the federal judiciary.
This is a strategy with baleful long-term consequences. The standard critique of liberal judges trumpets their willingness to substitute personal preference for legal analysis – and Roe is universally featured as Exhibit A. Conservative judges, in truth, perform the same kind of substitution just as often – but there is not yet as flagrant an Exhibit A for this contention as Roe provides.
As long as liberals embrace Roe, they will be forced to unilaterally shoulder an “activist” label that by rights, they should share with conservatives too. By not only embracing Roe, but pointing to it as the defining case of liberal constitutionalism, the Senate grandstanders only enhance the all too popular perception that liberal (but never conservative) judges routinely depart from the law, and give it far more credibility than it deserves.
The real debate in constitutional law today ought to be over the truly revolutionary nature of the conservatives’ agenda, and their willingness to do exactly what they accuse the liberals of having done in Roe: depart from constitutional sources to impose their own policy preferences. But until Democrats abandon Roe as the be all and end all of constitutional decision-making, they will continue to fight an uphill battle, having yielded the intellectual high ground to those who have no just claim to that terrain.
Shaky Basis for a Constitutional “Right”
Kermit Roosevelt, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Washington Post, January 22, 2003
[I]t is time to admit in public that, as an example of the practice of constitutional opinion writing, Roe is a serious disappointment. You will be hard-pressed to find a constitutional law professor, even among those who support the idea of constitutional protection for the right to choose, who will embrace the opinion itself rather than the result.
This is not surprising. As constitutional argument, Roe is barely coherent. The court pulled its fundamental right to choose more or less from the constitutional ether. . . .
No opinion with such deficiencies could be expected to provide a sound basis for resolution of a hotly contested social issue, and indeed, Roe has aged poorly. . . .
By declaring an inviolable fundamental right to abortion, Roe short-circuited the democratic deliberation that is the most reliable method of deciding questions of competing values.
Akhil Reed Amar, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2022. (Reading requires subscription)
WSJ Intro: For a constitutional scholar and pro-choice Democrat, there are reasons to endorse the leaked draft opinion overturning the 1973 abortion decision—and to see it as vindication for a range of liberal priorities.
In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the justices rightly buried their predecessors’ 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had proclaimed the dubious doctrine of “separate but equal.” . . . Likewise, the New Deal Court properly repudiated dozens of earlier Gilded Age cases that read property and contract rights far too broadly and in the process invalidated minimum-wage, maximum-hour, worker-safety and consumer-protection laws of various sorts—laws that are now seen, quite rightly, as perfectly proper.
The liberal Warren Court also overruled a staggering number of precedents, introducing now familiar terms to our constitutional lexicon. . . .
Today, the Supreme Court’s 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, is similarly ripe for reversal. In the eyes of many constitutional experts across the ideological spectrum, it too lacks solid grounding in the Constitution itself . . .
Does Justice Alito’s draft, as many are now claiming, inflict collateral damage on other areas of constitutional case law, such as the Warren Court’s precedents on contraception and interracial marriage?
It does not. In fact, the Dobbs draft reinforces these iconic opinions by explaining why they were right—namely, because the freedoms recognized in these cases were “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” . . .
Whereas the Court in Griswold [the case allowing married couples to have contraception] sided with 49 states against the outlier Connecticut, the Court in Roe invalidated the laws of at least 49—perhaps all 50—states. The Dobbs draft takes pains to cite this stunning fact . . .
In short, I am a Democrat who supports abortion rights but opposes Roe. The Court’s ruling in the case was simply not grounded either in what the Constitution says or in the long-standing, widely embraced mores and practices of the country.
For more of our posts on Roe v. Wade:
Reflections on the Alito Draft Leak of May 2, 2022
My Ideas for Post-Roe Legislation
Post-Roe Stats: the Natural Experiment