Crazy ‘death panel’ claims? Thank Roe vs. Wade

As reported in several articles in The Times, including the Aug. 21 story, " Obama tries to ‘cut through the noise’ on healthcare,” the president has been forced to address claims from those who oppose his healthcare reform proposal on the grounds that it would fund abortions with taxpayer dollars. Even some Roman Catholic bishops, who would normally support universal healthcare (perhaps even a sweeping single-payer plan), are vocally opposing President Obama’s plan. Their reason: abortion.

I’m a former antiabortion leader. I was part of the early evangelical pro-life movement, as was my late evangelist father, Francis Schaeffer. We were instrumental in turning the heretofore nonpolitical evangelicals into antiabortion activists who went on to become the backbone of the far right of the Republican Party.

I have long since changed my mind. I’m still appalled by the procedure, but like Obama, I now believe that abortion should be legal but that we should also help women bring their babies to term by fostering a humane country that supports women, children and families.

That said, the anti-healthcare reform backlash from what might be called the Sarah Palin wing of the Republican Party is once again proof that the way abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1973 was foolish. Roe vs. Wade is the root of our culture wars, and it is partly why healthcare reform is threatened by antiabortion activists who have joined forces with self-interested insurance companies.

Roe was a winner-take-all act of extremism that wasn’t even necessary. At the time, abortion was being legalized state by state, with New York and California leading the way. But in an act of judicial activism that many observers on all sides of the abortion debate found disturbingly sweeping, the Supreme Court aborted all discussion of the issue and “solved” the problem by forcing the most permissive abortion law in the Western world onto an American public, which was very far from ready to accept such a thing.

It still isn’t. More than 30 years after Roe, poll numbers are moving against the decision. The battle continues.

Not all prominent pro-choice liberals have given Roe support. In a 2007 interview, Justice John Paul Stevens said that Roe created a “new doctrine that really didn’t make sense.” Before joining the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized the decision for terminating the democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws. Law professor and New Republic columnist Jeffrey Rosen wrote in 2003: “In short, 30 years later, it seems increasingly clear that this pro-choice magazine was correct in 1973 when it criticized Roe on constitutional grounds. Its overturning would be the best thing that could happen to the federal judiciary, the pro-choice movement, and the moderate majority of the American people.”

Roe energized the far right like nothing else and sparked a slow-motion second American revolution. Every time there is a new effort to curtail gay rights, you can thank Roe. Every time the posting of the Ten Commandments becomes an issue, you can thank Roe. Now that Palin and others on the far right are warning us about “death panels” and other such complete fabrications, you can thank the hostility to all things government that Roe exacerbated. Only the bitterness over Roe can explain the paranoia of the evangelical far right, wherein they see death panels lurking where others see only sensible end-of-life counseling.

It is worth noting that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died while this healthcare debate was raging. Kennedy was the ultimate example of a wise progressive incrementalist. He had a broad liberal vision but was willing to bring change one step at a time. If pro-choice advocates had used the Kennedy approach to legalizing abortion, there would be no religious right today as we know it -- and no irrational anger in response to issues such as gay rights and, now, healthcare reform.

Roe should be overturned, and the debate over abortion should be settled in individual states. In most states, little would change: Abortion would remain legal, but half the population would also feel enfranchised and respected. The process would be messy, but the poison of Roe would be drained from the American bloodstream and allow everyone from bishops to evangelical leaders to follow their best (and often surprisingly liberal) instincts on matters such as healthcare reform.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of, most recently, the forthcoming book “Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don’t Like Religion (Or Atheism).”