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Roe V. Wade: 38 Years Old And Still Alien To America


As of this month, Roe v. Wade, making abortion a constitutional right, is 38 years old and still standing. No state may enact a criminal law protecting unborn children from death through abortion without having it swatted down by federal judges under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 mandate.

On the other hand, the idea and practice of American exceptionalism has many more generations behind it than Roe v. Wade.

Of mixed lineage and various meanings, the notion was expressed early on when in 1630 Puritan John Winthrop identified Massachusetts Bay colony as being like the biblical “city upon a hill” for all to see. Over 350 years later, President Reagan repeatedly used Winthrop’s phrase to articulate his vision of a “God-blessed” and thriving America. Noting their skill in practical arts, Tocqueville described Americans as “quite exceptional” in his famous 19th century work.

Whatever the scope of American exceptionalism, its core is bound up in how our forebears justified independence from Great Britain. Virtually no country, at least as early as the 18th century, ever got its start by invoking God-implanted natural law and enumerating systematic violations thereof. But we Americans did.

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence condenses centuries of human knowledge about natural law: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Most of the rest of Declaration describes facts in violation of these rights. They add up to despotism and tyranny, justifying separation from Britain. In the last paragraph, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and more than 50 other signers, after “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude” of their intentions, declared the colonies “Free and Independent States.” Victory in war established the fact.

What defined the American founders’ efforts as exceptional compared to so many would-be rulers down the ages were at least three things: (1) humility in recognizing God as creator and ruler in human affairs; (2) understanding that this life, whatever difficulties come along, is good and worthwhile because of its source; and (3) willingness to use reason to distinguish good from evil and then arrange temporal affairs, not to construct an unattainable utopia, but to establish prudent government under which individuals could pursue the good.

The founders were flawed human beings, like the rest of us who have ever lived. But with their feet planted firmly on earth, they used their minds, saw the blessings around them, and rejoiced.

The mindset of modern American leaders is far different. For example, in deciding to strike down longstanding state laws banning abortion in the Roe case, the majority asserted, ostrich-like, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.”

Unlike the founders’ approach, the justices surrendered their own faculty of reason. Instead of delving into the facts of prenatal development and giving a legal answer based on those facts, they declined the mental work of even answering the question. Moreover, they ignored the self-evident good of human life and who its author is.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was asked at what point during pregnancy does a baby get human rights. He said, “Well, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” How’s that for recognizing the intrinsic good of human life, approaching God’s creation with genuine humility, and rigorous use of reason?

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited,” Julia, after the death of her father, Lord Marchmain, breaks off her engagement to Charles Ryder because the marriage would make their adultery permanent. “[T]he worse I am, the more I need God,” she says. “I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw to-day there was one thing unforgivable  . . . the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.”

Whose good do we choose: the one we find in the created order, or a rival we invent?


Tom Ashcraft, a Charlotte native, is  a lawyer and former Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney .  Write him at

Special to ©2011 Tom Ashcraft. Used by permission.

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