Yet those of us who recognize abortion as the destruction of unborn human life need to ask ourselves: Is the situation that much different from what it has been over the past 36 years? For 20 out of those 36 years, the White House has been occupied by Republican presidents who declared themselves to be pro-life (though George H.W. Bush's conversion on the question did not come until 1987, as he geared up to run for the Republican nomination for President in 1988). For six out of the past eight years, George W. Bush had a majority in both houses of Congress. Yet the number of abortions nationwide every year has held relatively steady, at around 1.3 million, no matter who occupied the White House or which party controlled Congress.
Both parties have treated abortion as a political issue--as a tool for winning elections. Once in office, they have essentially governed the same, with some differences concerning federal funding and partial-birth abortion--questions that concern, at most, a few thousand abortions per year (a fraction of one percent of all abortions performed in the United States).
The biggest difference between the two parties on abortion has been on the question of Supreme Court nominations, yet even there, Republican nominees were responsible for Roe v. Wade in the first place, and more recent Republican nominees, such as David Souter and Anthony Kennedy, have shown little interest in restricting Roe, much less overturning it.
Meanwhile, the culture continues to change. For many people of Barack Obama's age and younger (he was 11 when Roe was handed down), their commitment to abortion is as much a cultural question as an ideological one. Abortion has been part of the cultural landscape their entire lives. It has been framed, even by pro-lifers, as a civil-rights question--and in the process, the horrifying reality of the act has been lost.
By the time that Barack Obama finishes his first term, Roe v. Wade will be within days of its 40th anniversary. Two generations of Americans will have grown up as he did, with abortion an accepted reality. That's a cultural force that will be very hard to combat--and it won't be defeated simply by overturning Roe.
Yes, Roe should be overturned, and the question returned to the states, where homicide law is handled in the United States. But that possibility grows more remote every day--and even if Roe were somehow overturned, most states would keep abortion legal. So what should those of us who understand what is at stake in abortion do now?
We should regard the next four years as an opportunity to refocus our efforts. We know that no advances will be made on the national level, so our primary focus will need to be on the states and localities. But we should also consider that perhaps that’s where our focus should have been all along. While we often mention the aggregate number of children who are killed every year in this nation by abortion, what we’re really talking about is the number of children killed in my town and your town and hundreds of other towns across the country.
Abortion isn't an amorphous force, striking the nation as a whole; it's always focused on this child, in this place, right now. It's time for pro-lifers to do the same. Support the crisis pregnancy center in your town, or help found one if there isn't one; put pressure on local politicians to keep abortionists out of your town, or apply political and social pressure to make it clear that those who are currently operating there aren't welcome.
At the family, parish, and diocesan level, we need to be looking constantly for ways to live out our beliefs. We need to provide aid--private aid, not governmental--to unwed mothers and to families suffering in this economy who might see abortion as their only option.
We can begin to turn the culture around from the ground up, in a way that overturning Roe would never, by itself, do. This is how Christians, down through the centuries, have converted their fellow men. This is how they have taken entire societies, starting with the Roman empire, off of the way of death and put them on the way of life.
Even if it were to happen, overturning Roe v. Wade would not be a magic bullet that would bring about the end of abortion in the United States. But Christian action, informed and sustained by prayer, might be.