At long last, Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case protecting the ‘right’ to abortion, has been overturned. While conservatives are generally elated, there are more than a few who have expressed frustration and even disgust that abortion was not banned outright. Lila Rose, the founder of LiveAction, claimed in an interview that “what the Supreme Court did was like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the blood of innocent children,” further insisting that returning this issue to the states was a concession to “mob justice.”
Rose has continued to speak in this vein, castigating the decision as insufficient and weak. While one can have sympathy for the intensity of her conviction, it betrays a lack of appreciation for what the Supreme Court—and by extension, any governing body—must do when faced with a question of such magnitude: first and foremost, to enact justice through established principles and within the confines of the institutions in which legitimate authority resides. This does not indicate a blind adherence to bureaucratic process or the elevation of rigid legalism over human dignity; it is the recognition that to violate the parameters of government in order to achieve an aim—no matter how good—is to destroy the very means by which justice can be promulgated. Government serves as the sovereign means to settle dispute and enforce law. To tear at its integrity erodes any potential for a more just and peaceful society.
To understand this more clearly, we need look no further than the life and presidency of America’s greatest son: Abraham Lincoln. We rightfully credit him with the destruction of slavery in the United States. Yet despite unceasing pressure from abolitionists, he did not abandon himself to the passions of the cause or overstep the bounds of his authority as chief executive. Instead, he used the constitutional means at his disposal to more perfectly enact the spirit of the Declaration—a painstaking effort that required patience and prudence.
Throughout his political life, Abraham Lincoln was bound by his fidelity to the American Founding: the principles of the Declaration of Independence, codified in the Constitution, and expressed through the Bill of Rights and amendments. It was to this that the states promised adherence. The Union was founded on the proposition that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” in defense of which the Founding Fathers witnessed that they would “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This obligation still falls heavily upon the American heart—liberal and conservative. There is some deep sense, and perhaps fear, that we are simply one misguided decision away from destroying the framework that protects these principles. Abraham Lincoln was conscious of this and crafted his presidency around the conviction that, above all, the nation must be maintained through the institutions established to ensure its existence. This was the significance that the Civil War held for him: it would determine whether “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Lincoln’s primary intention was not the abolition of the South’s ‘peculiar institution,’ a popular euphemism meant to civilize slavery’s barbaric reality. Instead, he held himself bound to uphold his presidential oath: to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. As he warned the secessionists in his first inaugural address: “You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in the Heavens to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.”
His refusal to make slavery the central cause of war elicited endless grief from activists. Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the radical Republican New York Tribune, regularly reproved him for his alleged apathy, to which Lincoln responded: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not to either save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it.” It should come as no surprise that this quote has, in recent years, been used as fodder to tear down a president who embodies our national ideals and, in so doing, cast the entire American project under the merciless judgment of social justice crusaders. Perhaps he also would have faced an accusation of indifference from many pro-life activists today. However, when one stands back from the passions elicited by unbending conviction, Lincoln’s reply gives insight into the nuances of his political strategy, one that allowed him to more effectively address the evils of slavery.
What Lincoln expressed to Horace Greeley was not an unfeeling dismissal of the plight of the slaves. It was a recognition that the end of slavery required first and foremost the integrity of the legal framework by which it could be eradicated. This is one of the purposes for which government is established and sustained. It provides a structured response to the inevitable onslaught of human conflict. If the emergence of a moral struggle causes one to ignore those foundations in order to satisfy a sense of urgency, government is rendered meaningless and any hope of lawfully and sustainably addressing injustice is destroyed. Righteous ends cannot be served by embracing a spirit of anarchy.
It was for this reason that Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He was alienated by their zealotry, although he insisted “I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist.” He was a true son of the Enlightenment, and Evangelical Christianity’s central role in the anti-slavery movement offended his sensitivities. He had more than once rejected the overtly religious tones of his fellow travelers, insisting on remaining true to the separation of church and state.
However, more than this, he was repulsed by a willingness in anti-slavery men to sacrifice American institutions in order to achieve their aims. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the leading activists of the day, became convinced that the entire Republic was a failed venture and proceeded to publicly burn the Constitution as a sign of his disgust and repudiation. While most abolitionists were not so extreme, many were beholden to a zeal that gave way to similar rashness. This tendency caused Lincoln to bemoan that American liberty was threatened most by “the increasing disposition to substitute wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgements of the court.”
In contrast, it was with that same sober judgement that Lincoln plotted a course to permanently free the slaves. Although deeply melancholic, he was not a man prone to overwhelming passions—in his personal, professional, or political life. On the contrary, his presidency is characterized by a politics of prudence. Although he knew beyond doubt that slavery is evil—he once told three delegates from the embattled border state of Kentucky, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember a time when I did not so think, and feel.”—his slow, measured, and obsessive adherence to the Constitution (despite the challenge of interpreting it in the unprecedented context of the Civil War) put him at odds with the vehemence that infected many abolitionists. As eminent Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo has noted, the president was inclined to reject romantic notions of moral absolutism. He relied heavily on compromise and patience.
This understanding contextualizes his response to Horace Greeley: “if I could save the Union without freeing on slave, I would do it.” For although his sentiments were drawn to abolition, his actions were constrained by the parameters of his office. “I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.” This is not a sign of weakness, but instead serves as a testament to his wisdom in drawing reason, means, and conclusion into his political life. Where abolitionists insisted on taking any route to achieve their aims, Lincoln understood that, for slavery to be truly and fully destroyed, he must attain this end through the institutions that give political shape to American society. It was in this spirit that he exhorted his fellow Americans, saying: “Don’t interfere with the anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.”
The president’s strategy won the day. Despite the blustering and ardor of activists, it was “the name of Abraham Lincoln–restrained, emotionally chill, with an unblinking eye for compromise–which ended up at the bottom of the Emancipation Proclamation.” And lest anyone be fooled that his hesitance was an indication of lax conviction, upon signing the proclamation, he said “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”
It is easy to feel and think that giving precedence to strict constitutionalism over the immediate remediation of grave injustice is a symptom of Pilate’s cowardice. However, Lincoln’s disposition stemmed from his awareness that the only legitimate way to enact and uphold a law is through the law, according to the law, and by authority properly and concisely delineated.
Activists, no matter how moral their aims, must keep this in mind. While Lila Rose may have reason for frustration, her dismissal of the Supreme Court’s decision is wrong and unjustified. Like Lincoln, the justices are primarily bound to uphold the Constitution that underpins their judicial authority. While they found no indication that abortion is a Constitutional right—an understanding shared by many scholars, pro-life and pro-abortion alike—it appears that they did not find the necessary justification to supersede the distinction between state and federal authority to outlaw it entirely.
This is not an act of “washing their hands of the blood of innocent children”; instead, their actions sustain the very means by which we can strive for a more just society. To reject this and engage in judicial activism would be to embrace a spirit of anarchy, in which the means of determining law are not defined and defended but are dependent upon who happens to be in power at any given moment. This would tear at the very fabric of our country and render its founding principles–including the right to life–impotent. As Lincoln once said, “we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.”