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Studies in Law and Medicine

The Limits of the Law: Reflections on the Abortion Debate

Americans United for Life published “Studies in Law and Medicine” in the 1970s and 1980s, spotlighting issues pertaining to the human right to life across the bioethics spectrum. As Americans United for Life celebrates our 50th anniversary, we are making these issues available for the first time since their print publication.

The Limits of the Law: Reflections on the Abortion Debate by James Tunstead Burtchaell, C.S.C.

Most people are aware that the highly antagonized debate over abortion in America has found its principal focus on a question of law: shall we have legal barriers that protect the unborn by restraining their mothers’ freedom to abort? Both parties to the debate have turned their sharpest attention to this as a matter of law. Partisans of free choice considered their struggle largely successful when Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973 legitimated abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy. Prolife advocates have been laboring mightily ever since to overturn those enactments. The course of the conflict has been punctuated by the passage of various new laws and regulations and the handing down of a series of court decisions. 

I want to argue that many on both sides may be seriously misled. Abortion is one of those issues that will never be resolved by law. Prolife people ought to ask themselves what one stands to gain from a satisfactory change in the law. They have been reminded from all sides that they practice which is presently engaged in each year by a million and a half women is not likely to be stopped by a statute. Indeed, in the days before 1973 when our laws made abortion under the most circumstance is a criminal act, those laws led to relatively few prosecutions. All of this raises the question: would it really be possible to restrain abortion by the force of law? 

Women who are desperate enough to destroy their children are among society’s most abused victims. We owe them every help. But I truly compassionate support can never invite them to assuage their own anger by exterminating those more helpless still. It is by breaking the savage cycle of violence that victimization is laid to rest.  We must support the Justin dutiful application of coercive power by those who rule. But our firmest reliance must fasten upon the courageous appeal of those whose duty it is to preach. And it is the duty of us all, without exception, to preach a welcome for the helpless.  True justice is guaranteed by law only in a nation whose people have undergone changes of heart. Those who accept the obligation to protect the unborn should be the first to ensure for them the further shelter of conversion. The appeal to law imposes on us an appeal to conscience, rather than relieving us of that further and more arduous duty.