The United States appears poised to be the first Western country to achieve a major reversal on liberal abortion laws. The U.S. Supreme Court, the country’s constitutional court, has been deliberating the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a legal row over a Mississippi state law passed in 2018 that prohibits abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually detected in the sixth week of pregnancy. Currently, abortion on demand is legal in most states up to week 24 of pregnancy based on the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade, which declared abortion a constitutional right. In some states, abortion is legal for all nine months of pregnancy.
The American pro-life movement has been fighting so-called abortion rights at the state level and through the court system for the last fifty years, hoping that one day Roe v. Wade’s egregious judicial misjudgement would be overturned. It appears that day may be right around the corner.
On May 2nd, the news site Politico published a leaked draft of the majority opinion in the Dobbs case, to both the nation’s shock and delight. Such a dramatic leak of judicial deliberations was not only unprecedented, but the majority opinion also showed that the court was indeed ready to overturn Roe V. Wade. A short rash of pro-abortion demonstrations, some at the homes of Supreme Court justices, and violent attacks on pro-life pregnancy centres followed.
The source of the press leak is currently under investigation. The judges’ final ruling is not expected until July, but in the meantime, The European Conservative spoke with Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, about what the historic leak and the possible outcome of the case mean for the U.S. and the global pro-life movement.
Meaney has spent his life and career in the pro-life movement. He is a bioethicist with a doctorate from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. He was director of international outreach and expansion for Human Life International (HLI) and has travelled to eighty-one countries on pro-life missions over the last twenty-five years. He founded the Rome office of HLI in 1998 and lived in Rome for nine years, where he collaborated closely with dicasteries of the Holy See, particularly the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is a dual U.S. and French citizen. He follows in the footsteps of his family, who have been active in the health care and pro-life fields in France and Corpus Christi, Texas, for many years.
In our email correspondence, you linked the leak of a Supreme Court opinion with the January 6th riot, presumably carried out to stop certification of the presidential election. Can you tell me more about the connection between these events and how they reflect the “undermining of vitally important American governmental institutions?”
Yes. So, what it seems to me to indicate is that we have a real crisis of trust in U.S. government institutions, and that the problem is accelerating. It is coming from both sides of the political spectrum, from the Right and the Left, and it is kind of remarkable in U.S. history. Since the American Revolution, U.S. democracy has been extraordinarily stable. The biggest single test was the Civil War. The U.S. Civil War was a massive bloodletting, and it was over a constitutional issue, the right to slavery, which was in the U.S. Constitution. But besides that, there have not been that many constitutional crises in U.S. history.
What I think we are seeing right now, in a sense, is people losing trust in the institutions. Take the elections. So many people today feel that presidential elections are fraudulent, and it is coming from the Right and from the Left. You could sense the distrust building twenty years ago. I remember the 2000 election when Bush was elected by just a few hundred votes in Florida, and the recount went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and you could just feel the liberals were absolutely on fire that it would be a disaster if George W. Bush became the President of the United States instead of Al Gore. That crisis passed, but in recent elections, candidates don’t concede. Hillary Clinton was not about to concede to Trump in the 2016 election; it took forever. Then Trump never conceded when he lost his election, and that led you to January 6th: a rally essentially saying that the election was fraudulent, that Trump was still president, and that Biden should not be allowed to take office. It points to an enormous constitutional crisis in terms of the functioning of our democracy, which is increasingly being questioned by a larger percentage of people.
I am not saying we are on the verge of civil war, but I am saying that we are in a kind of a constitutional crisis at present—which is why it is absolutely critical that the Supreme Court decision goes through.
The reason for the leak, I think, was a last-ditch attempt to prevent the reversal of Roe v. Wade (the court decision that legalized abortion), to generate enough pressure on the justices to force them to reverse themselves. If that kind of mob rule, that kind of pressure, succeeds, what will that mean for America? It will mean the end of a democratic way to defend the right of the unborn child; that Supreme Court justices have no legal impartiality; that the political process is dead and that mob rule, like the January 6th invasion of the Capitol, is the only effective course to take. And that would be a tragedy.
I think it is so important at this point that this decision comes out, because if it does not, then, essentially, our institutions are amazingly compromised. And people are going to be saying, okay, well, we had another way to resolve this: it was called the Civil War. People will think the only way to resolve these issues is mob rule—“might makes right”—as opposed to voting and our democratic institutions. That would be a terrible tragedy.
That is a great observation. Have you read the leaked draft opinion? What about it struck you most?
Yes, I was able to read the draft. What struck me most was that it included all the arguments that we had been bringing forward for fifty years—that there is no constitutional right to abortion, that it was imposed by an activist judge, that it was very poor legal reasoning, and that it was judicial activism. In other words, it forced an unelected body’s decision on the majority of people, against the laws that they had passed through their elected representatives. The people should have the right to decide this issue.
In some sense, you know, it is not the ultimate pro-life decision. The ultimate pro-life decision would recognize pre-born children as human beings, as persons under the law, granting their right to life. Such a decision would deny politicians the opportunity to decide if a pre-born child could be aborted in this or that state. So, in a sense, the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion is a compromise that says to let the people decide. A truly pro-life judge would say, look, you have a right to life, and a legislator can’t take your right to life away.
Do you think we could ever reach a point where abortion would be declared unconstitutional or that we could go back to pre-20th-century law where abortion was directly criminalized?
With the reversal of Roe v. Wade, abortion will be criminalized in thirteen U.S. states, and there will likely be eight or nine more that would quickly pass laws that criminalize abortion.
I think there is a growing majority—and the polls indicate this as well—that think abortion is wrong, that it permits the killing of a human being, and therefore should not be allowed. Interestingly, this has taken on all the signs of being a class issue. If you have a college diploma, whether you are white, black, Hispanic, whatever group you are, you are 72% in favor of legal abortion. If you have a high-school diploma or less, you are 33% in favor of legal abortion. There are very few issues on which there is that stark a difference based on education.
In spite of this class disparity, and you probably know the numbers on this, it seems like the poor are more likely to have abortions, or have more abortions.
Correct. Particularly minority groups. One of the things that gets pointed out repeatedly is that African Americans, maybe 13% of the population, have 25% of abortions.
Within the context of an instant criminalization of abortion, the pro-abortion activists are proclaiming an apocalypse for women and society and children. What do you think will be the actual fallout, so to speak, if abortion is criminalized in large swaths of the U.S.?
It is certainly not going to be an apocalypse. We have a preview of what will happen in Texas. Texas last year passed their heartbeat law [the Texas Heartbeat Act], which made it illegal to have an abortion after the fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. My family is involved with all kinds of pro-life efforts, and a few months ago my mom spoke to the director of a crisis pregnancy center in Texas which sees a large number of abortion-minded women.
The director told her of a day when there were eighteen women who came into the crisis pregnancy center for sonograms, and fetal heartbeats were detected. The pro-life counsellors noted the women’s reactions. Overwhelmingly, their responses were ones of relief, “aahhh… I can’t have an abortion!” That was very interesting to these counselors. They realized the women’s reactions were because these women felt extraordinary pressure. They felt like it was a bad time to have a baby with whatever problems and other things they had going on in their lives. Let’s be honest, it is the minority of pregnancies that come at exactly the right time, that are the most convenient, that come exactly when you had planned for it. Pregnancy is not convenient, in most circumstances. And so, there is pressure. And there is societal pressure, from families, from partners, from husbands, et cetera.
To me, the most revealing survey I have ever read was by Dr. David Reardon, many years ago. He interviewed many women who had had abortions, using a questionnaire. And the number one reason for having an abortion was ‘I felt that I had no other choice.’ And it was so striking, because the pro-abortion movement calls itself the pro-choice movement, and these women who are having abortions said they were doing it because they felt they had no choice. So, it was like the opposite, it was like a bitter irony—which is just tragic. And so, the pro-life side offers choices, and offers options, but the law also offers choices and options. And if the law says legal abortion is no longer an option, a lot of people are going to [ask], okay, so what are my other choices? And for many, having choices other than abortion brings relief. They don’t want to have the abortion, but they feel like they have no other option.
That having been said, were you surprised by the violent reaction to the draft, to the leak of the draft?
No. To the contrary, it was interesting to see how limited the public’s reaction was. So, for instance, on Mother’s Day, there was a threat that thousands of people were going to dress up like the characters in the Handmaid’s Tale, with the red capes and the white bonnets, and invade Catholic churches across the nation, disrupt Mass, and, you know, accuse the Catholic Church of imposing the criminalization of abortion on poor, helpless, defenseless women across the country, etc.—that bold discourse.
I was curious to see what would happen. There was an incident in the cathedral of Los Angeles, where a few women went in, maybe a handful, but elsewhere, I do not think it happened.
Wikipedia has a page about abortion protests following the leak, and the thing that is most striking to me is that it says, “a handful,” “a few dozen,” “two or three,” whatever. I think I only saw two saying a thousand people gathered. Even though there were these mobilizations from powerful groups trying to get their people out. Reactionaries were not in the hundreds of thousands of people showing up to shut down major cities or anything like that, just a few really unhappy radicals who were out there to vent their spleen a bit, but it was not a major popular uprising.
And what have we have seen consistently on the pro-life side? Hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington, D.C., each year, in the cold, in the rain, in the snow, to protest abortion, and a few hundred on the opposite side showing up to defend abortion.
The pro-abortion movement cannot sustain a major pro-abortion march every year. They just can’t. There are not enough people willing to do it. But the pro-life side can: more and more bigger marches, and not just in D.C., but also in other parts of the country. The mobilization is real and growing. So, it seems to me that the other side has lost. They have lost their popular base of support, and now they have lost the Supreme Court, which was imposing it against the majority of the people. There is of course regional variability. There are clearly pro-abortion majorities in New York, in California, and among certain groups. But if you look at America as a whole—no, there is a pro-life majority, and it is growing.
Do you think that same dynamic, of an increasingly emptied pro-abortion movement and a growing pro-life movement, is happening in Europe as well?
In Europe, the influence of the United States is actually pretty significant, so there is a lot of interest in pro-life victories in the U.S., a lot of interest in what works in the U.S. and how it translates into a European context in terms of doing marches, getting involved in politics, trying to elect pro-life candidates, trying to appeal court cases, to work at the level of the European Parliament or the Council of Europe. I think some of those things have been successful, and there is a renewed interest in the cause, something I saw while living in Europe. I was basically there between 2010 and 2019, in Italy and France, and I noticed an increase in activities, more marches, more general mobilization. And, interestingly, with probably less support from the Church than before.
I really got the impression that Saint John Paul II inspired a pro-life generation, in Evangelium Vitae. It was just so clear that the Pope was making this a top priority, and Pope Benedict continued that same tradition. Under Pope Francis, there was a clear signal that he was very, very pro-life, but he had a bunch of other priorities. Immigration became a big issue for him, and there was an immigration crisis to justify this, and then COVID, and all kinds of other things. But in a sense, ‘pro-life’ has lost its preeminence among papal priorities. Yet the pro-life movement has not seemed to be too affected by that. It is like they are not dependent on the Church leading it necessarily, as still the pro-life movement seems to be developing.
But you also have places like France where the pro-life movement is very problematic, because you really don’t have a pro-life political party. In the latest presidential election, regardless of who won, Macron or Le Pen, it was not going to lead to a pro-life epiphany. One was probably going to be a little bit worse than the other.
What has happened in the U.S. is that people [recognize], “I’m elected to be a pro-life politician, that is what my base wants. And I’m going to deliver, or I’m not going to be re-elected.” In Europe there are very few politicians who can say that. It makes the pro-life side much less dynamic in a sense because it is less of a burning issue. Until it becomes one, I think it will be difficult for pro-life victories to take place consistently.
Regarding Pope Francis, it seems there are many pro-life Catholics in the Unites States who feel abandoned by Pope Francis. What is your take on this, how do you think of this as a Catholic involved with the pro-life movement?
There is Catholic doctrine, and doctrine develops, but it does not change. There is development, and there is emphasis. And so, some things get emphasized during certain periods. I am a firm believer that certain eras have their issues. There was a period when slavery was the overwhelming moral issue of the age—and the Church was on board, you know, against slavery. But there were centuries earlier when slavery was not the dominating issue, in the 13th century, in the 14th century, at which point the Church was not leading the charge against it. It was just not the issue that they were talking about until later on.
And it seems like pro-life as an issue really reached a peak under Saint John Paul II. He really articulated the Church’s defense of life, the dignity of the human person, in the midst of our biotech revolution. You know, the first test-tube baby was generated in the 1970s, along with genetic cloning—different things that had huge ramifications for humanity and the dignity of the human person. John Paul II was there at the beginning of it, and he articulated the Church’s stand extremely well. My sense is that Pope Benedict fought in the same way, and he even went deeper in some sense.
So, what is different about Pope Francis? I have seen him say things that were more radical, in the pro-life sense, than any of his two predecessors. He referred to abortionists as “contract killers with white gloves;” he talked about all kinds of different things, referred to it as “demonic.” In a certain sense, Pope Francis’s rhetoric denouncing abortion has been stronger than that of his predecessors. And so, what is going on here? Although they agree with the Pope and the Pope agrees with them on pro-life, they may or may not agree with him when he addresses care for the environment, or immigration. It is almost like his style is not what people connect with.
Yes, certainly every pope brings something different to the papacy and to the Church. Getting back to the Supreme Court decision, were you surprised that the judges had leaned pro-life?
No. Something interesting—I don’t know, I think I am an optimist by nature—but I have been telling people, look, we are going to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs case is the case, that’s it, period. So many conservatives thought it would be the Casey case, you know, Casey v. Pennsylvania, in the nineties, to overturn Roe v. Wade. We had a majority of supposedly pro-life justices, and they failed. The experience jaded conservatives, and pro-lifers were preparing for another disappointment. But I just felt that this would be the case, and I think in a sense the polarization in our society helped.
Tell me why polarization helped.
I think in the 1990s, the pro-life justices did not have the oomph to bear the reaction, the backlash, from the liberals and the abortion advocates. And I think today the justices like Amy Coney Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Gorsuch, all these nominees from Trump, are kind of a different kind of conservative. They [seem to be saying] “no, we stand for what we stand for, and we are not going to back down just because it makes the liberals unhappy.”
In terms of the decline of democracy, distrust in institutions, polarization—do you see any parallel in the European context?
I think so. In the 1970s, Germany passed a law legalizing abortion. It was then challenged in the constitutional court, and the constitutional court ruled that the right to life in the German constitution included the preborn child. That particular constitutional court ruling was leaked before it was released, and there were huge protests in 1975 against the constitutional court, saying that they were legislating from the bench, and that they were not allowing legislators to make the law. Eventually, the German Bundestag passed a law that decriminalized abortion in such a way that it is technically illegal, but is still allowed to happen.
The German constitutional court allowed that to happen; they did not strike down that law. So, in a sense, the Europeans have experienced a situation where the courts have gotten involved and said, no, you can’t do this, and then legislators found a compromise, a political solution.
But the European context is different. Abortion laws are not as radical as they are in the United States since they don’t allow abortion until birth, except in the case of fetal handicaps or sickness. There tends to be less societal debate on the issue, and the judges, the courts tend to be less activist than in the United States. So, what we have seen in Europe is that those who want liberal laws tend to pass liberal laws, instead of getting the courts to impose liberal laws.
But the United States has an opposite strategy. Starting in the 20th century, when liberal groups were not able to get a majority in the legislatures, or even in the electorate, they looked to the courts to get what they wanted. And so, they get a decision like Roe v. Wade which knocks down the laws in most of the states of the U.S. There were a few that had legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, in New York, in California, but most of the states had pro-life laws.
Liberal activism through the courts, I think, is coming to an end in the United States. Because the conservatives said, okay, if you have the liberal justices on the court to do these activist things, then we can elect presidents who will nominate conservative justices, who will reverse that. And, you know, two can play this game of the Supreme Court ruling on your side. Even though the justices themselves are not elected, the people who appoint the justices are elected.
So, we have seen a situation where for fifty years now, the pro-life movement has been electing presidents on the hopes that these candidates would appoint pro-life justices. If the Supreme Court returns legal power on this issue of abortion to the states, where it constitutionally belongs, perhaps the voter will be more free to engage in other pressing issues at the ballot box in the future.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.