In December 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which centered on a 2018 Mississippi law that extended protection to unborn life after 15 weeks. This posed the first direct challenge in decades to Roe v. Wade, the infamous 1973 case in which the Supreme Court declared abortion before fetal viability, which generally begins around 24 weeks, a constitutional right and legalized it nationwide. Since that time, over 60 million unborn children have been killed by the procedure.
On June 24, in a majority opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s law and declared that there is no constitutional right to abortion. This also overturned Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which added an undue burden standard for evaluating abortion legislation. The authority to regulate abortion has been returned to state legislatures.
This is all good news, and prima facie it would seem that it is just that: good news, as if it came about spontaneously. In reality, this is the result of hard work, strategic thinking, and, I am sure, lots of prayer. In other words, Dobbs is no coincidence, and this success story has a number of protagonists.
For many Christians, even the date of the decision seems to confirm that nothing was left to chance.. It is the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. The Gospel narrates that Jesus declared him to be the greatest man to have ever lived: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Lk 7:28). St. John’s life reminds us that we must strive for good in the world we live in and in the middle of our own circumstances. This is our responsibility: nothing more and nothing less.
This is easier said than done, and the challenges to fight the good fight as we should are enormous. I believe that there are two elements of special importance. First, we must be willing to engage and face adversity, fully aware of the risks—defenestration, ostracism, accusation, finger pointing, etc.—and opportunity costs involved. It is paramount to understand what is at stake when we stand up to do what is right. Otherwise, our action would not be brave but foolish, as prudence calls for us to carefully weigh the pros and cons of any decision. Courageous people are thus precisely because they have considered the consequences of their actions and decide to act anyway.
Second, we must be smart. As a friend of mine often says, “stupid for Jesus is still stupid.” He is absolutely right. Good intentions are simply not enough. Unguided action is counterproductive, as it inevitably fails to produce results and encourages those who wish us and our principles harm. It can also cause many within our ranks to despair and refrain from taking action. As the proverb goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In other words, in order to advance meaningfully, we must act strategically and intentionally. There are many organizations that are succesfully engaging in pro-life work in this manner, such as 40 Days for Life in the United States and ProLife Europe. One particularly noteworthy group is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the world’s largest Christian, legal advocacy group committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, parental rights, and God’s design for marriage and family.
Founded in 1994, ADF has been advocating, training lawyers, and funding legal cases, as well as providing support to allied attorneys representing clients through litigation. Their influence across the world is rapidly growing and, in the United States, they are deeply involved in changing the legal and judicial landscape. Fourteen victories in the U.S. Supreme Court since 2011 bear witness to the tremendous job this organization is doing, including affirming a business’ right to refuse baking custom cakes for gay weddings and the rights of churches to receive taxpayer-funded state grants. They illustrate that good intentions and funding alone are insufficient. To be truly prepared for battle, strategy and action are needed.
In its fight against abortion, ADF has consistently focused on the issue of fetal viability. While the viability standard has led to incremental gains in abortion restrictions, it is still considered a controversial legal and ethical matter. There are many pro-life advocates who condemn the attempt to reduce the legal time frame for abortion, rather than ban it outright, as morally unacceptable. However, ADF has employed this strategy with success, as attested to by Dobbs.
In order to bring the issue of abortion to the Supreme Court, a case had to be built. More specifically, a state legislature would have to pass a law restricting abortion before viability, wait for that law to be challenged under the viability standard established in Roe and Casey, and have it appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. To that end, ADF looked at states’ attorney generals, specific courts, and legislatures to begin the process. Utah and Arkansas were interested in passing laws to challenge the viability standard—which they eventually did in 2019—but Mississippi beat them to it, and ADF got its golden ticket.
In 2018, Mississippi passed The Gestational Age Act—which ADF helped draft— to protect unborn children after 15 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergencies or severe fetal abnormality. Within a day of the act’s passage, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and one of its doctors, Sacheen Carr-Ellis, challenged the act’s constitutionality by suing Thomas E. Dobbs, a state health officer with the Mississippi State Department of Health, and Kenneth Cleveland, executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure. Dobbs had begun and it gave an unprecedented opportunity to the pro-life movement.
ADF took full advantage of this, although they kept their involvement under wraps. For example, Erin Hawley, senior counsel at ADF and wife to Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri, served as co-counsel on the case, a fact which was not widely publicized. They did this to avoid gratuitous attacks from progressive groups, such as Southern Poverty Law Center, that could undermine its case. ADF’s prudent and quiet strategy has allowed them to make steady headway in the fight against abortion and other causes.
Through work like this, ADF has contributed to a transformation of the legal and judicial culture in the United States. Meanwhile in Europe and elsewhere, ADF International, a partner organization, has focused on defending fundamental freedoms through regional and local teams with great success, including 26 wins at the European Court of Human Rights. Recent cases include defending the rights of pro-life advocates to pray and speak freely in public and on university campuses. In July 2022, they supported a 76-year-old grandmother by successfully challenging a police penalty after she was arrested and fined for taking a silent prayer walk near an abortion facility.
Perhaps this year’s most notorious case was that of Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. Räsänen, also former minister of the interior, was charged with ‘hate speech’ for sharing her faith-based views on marriage and sexual ethics in a 2019 tweet, a 2019 radio debate, and a pamphlet published in 2004. Bishop Pohjola faced charges for publishing Räsänen’s pamphlet for his congregation over 17 years ago. ADF International provided legal support, and on March 30th, a Finnish court dismissed all charges and upheld the right to free speech.
However, the court’s decision was appealed by the prosecution and the case has been reopened. Many would interpret this as a setback, but more strategic minds see it as an opportunity. Päivi Räsänen expressed this spirit of optimism:
[T]he prosecutor’s decision to appeal may lead to the case going all the way to the Supreme Court, offering the possibility of securing a positive precedent for freedom of speech and religion for all Finnish people. Also, I am happy that this decision will lead to the discussion of the Bible’s teachings in society. I am ready to defend freedom of speech and religion in all necessary courts. As far as the European Court of Human rights, if necessary.
This is the proper approach to defend and advance our cause. We should be fueled by a smart and hopeful attitude. It is no coincidence that hope is one of the three theological virtues in Christian tradition. It teaches us that however difficult our circumstances are, we must never fall into despair.
Our society gives us many opportunities to speak the truth. We should take full advantage by giving powerful testimony in order to accomplish our aims and inspire our fellow conservatives. In this regard, ADF gives us an example of the leadership we need. Prudence, courage, skill, strategy, and direction are all elements that will lead to success. We have been called to do the right things right. This is how we fight the good fight.