Two years ago in this space I described a genial dinner party that ended on a sour note. A Christian friend shocked me by promoting abortion as a solution to ghetto poverty. At that time, I warned readers that just such sincere, well-meaning people would start us down a slippery slide into a culture of death. Little did I realize how quickly that slide would become a free fall. In a mere 24 months, an extraordinary shift has occurred that pushes us beyond abortion, beyond even the broader life issues, and into questions of whether we can maintain public order in a free society.
The shift was precipitated dramatically and unexpectedly by the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Initially, both sides felt it was a middle-of-the-road decision. Pro-lifers were glad that the Court allowed states to impose some reasonable limits on abortion; pro-choicers that the Court reaffirmed the basic holding of Roe v. Wade.
But as the smoke cleared, it became obvious that the battle lines had shifted decisively. First, in Roe the Court had based abortion on the right to privacy, a right found nowhere explicitly in the Constitution-making the decision vulnerable to reversal. But in Casey, the Court transferred abortion from an implied to an explicit right—the right of liberty found in the Fourteenth Amendment—making the decision almost impossible to reverse.
Second, Casey opened the floodgates for euthanasia and other life-and-death issues. In pinning abortion to liberty, the Court defined liberty in the most sweeping terms conceivable—including, the majority said, "the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy."
Last May, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein echoed that language when she struck down a Washington law prohibiting doctor-assisted suicide. Rothstein argued that suicide, like abortion, "involved the most intimate and personal choices a person may make," that it "constitutes a choice central to personal dignity and autonomy," and that it deserves the same "protection from unwarranted governmental interference."
Third, Casey set up personal autonomy as the rule in every area of life. In defining liberty, the majority waxed downright philosophical: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
At first sight, this passage may seem unremarkable. Beliefs about existence, meaning, and the mystery of human life are religious, and religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment. What makes the passage revolutionary is that it applies religious language specifically to abortion. It gives religious status to a completely individualistic act: an act that presumes the right of one person to take the life of another for purely private reasons, without any public accountability. The Court endorsed a philosophy of the autonomous individual defining his or her own reality in complete isolation—even to the point of taking the life of another person.
But if autonomous, personal choices may not be circumscribed in any way by the state, the rule of law is impossible. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia was prophetic: Under the Court's expansive definition, he warned, liberty could encompass "homosexual sodomy, polygamy, adult incest, and suicide."
But that list is altogether too short: The truth is that liberty could now encompass virtually any decision by which an individual expresses his sense of "selfhood," "meaning," and "existence."
As Christians, our response ought to be that all this talk about personal choices and meaning is irrelevant. Our courts and legal system are not concerned with private religious and metaphysical beliefs but with public justice. People of different beliefs—from Christians to atheists to New Agers- may disagree vehemently over the meaning of life; yet we can all agree on standards of public justice and order, just as we can all agree to stop when the traffic signal is red.
We may hold different religious and philosophical reasons for stopping at the signal—different convictions regarding the source of moral authority. Christians hold a distinctive ethic that is based on Scripture and uniquely empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yet, as citizens, we also contend for a public philosophy, justified by prudential arguments, aimed at promoting the public good.
The distinction between private belief and public philosophy is crucial if we are to maintain freedom of conscience and at the same time maintain public order. But it is precisely this distinction that Casey denied. It gave up any attempt to frame a public philosophy: it simply opted out of the discussion altogether and transferred the most fundamental decisions about life and death to the purely private realm. In the words of Russell Hittinger of Catholic University, Casey granted citizens "a private franchise over matters of life and death."
Yesterday that franchise covered abortion; today, assisted suicide; and tomorrow—who knows? The Court has given up any notion that private behavior should be constrained by the public good.
Casey has taken us far beyond the issue of abortion, or even the broader life issues. It has begun to unravel America's civil contract. It is only a short step from here to barbarism.
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