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Supreme Court v. Nation of Vigilantes?

Learning slavery’s lessons

Pro-life Nation is still rightly abuzz about the big news Leah Savas reports in this issue of WORLD: The Supreme Court on Sept. 1 did not give a knee-jerk “No” to the new Texas law that protects 6-week-old unborn children.

As one Texas pregnancy center director, Heather Jones, told Leah, “For now, for this season, the fact that abortion is illegal after a heartbeat is detected is something I don’t know that I ever thought I’d see in my lifetime and it’s just—it’s beautiful.”

Will this change last? Three liberal justices voted to stifle the Texas initiative. So did Chief Justice John Roberts. I hope he (and others) will keep in mind one word: slavery.

Famous Virginians more than two centuries ago opposed slavery in theory. Washington: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” Jefferson: “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” Madison: “The mere distinction of colour [is] ground for the most oppressive domination ever exercised by man over man.”

In practice, though, they were stare decisis, let it stand. Washington said freeing slaves would produce “inconvenience and mischief.” (He hoped it could happen bit by bit.) Jefferson said, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” Madison noted “the magnitude of this evil” and spoke of “devising a satisfactory remedy,” eventually.

That’s where Roberts may be on abortion: He’s not for it, but Roe v. Wade is “the settled law of the land.” Except it’s not, and many state legislatures have made that clear. The Texas law pushes the envelope furthest: It creates protection for unborn children and allows individuals to bring civil suits against abortionists and their accomplices.

The headline of a New York Times column on Sept. 4 complained, “We Are Becoming a Nation of Vigilantes.” Law school professors Jon Michaels and David Noll said the Texas law invites “guerrilla investigative tactics.” That’s true and it’s potentially a problem, but the new law exists only because the U.S. Supreme Court has not allowed other options. If the court lets stand the Mississippi 15-week protection law it will soon consider, that will be a first step toward avoiding guerrilla war.

And if the court keeps slamming the door? Another Virginian slaveowner, George Mason, described slavery as “a slow Poison … contaminating the Minds & Morals of People.” Slavery obviously harmed blacks but also made whites “Practiced in Acts of Despotism & Cruelty … callous to the Dictates of Humanity.” Mason wrote that when we learn “to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man” and become “Habituated from our Infancy to trample upon the Rights of Human Nature.”

That describes the effects of abortion. Its primary victims are unborn children and their mothers. Its primary beneficiaries are men empowered in irresponsibility and organizations not inconvenienced by employees giving birth, taking time off, and maybe leaving the workforce. But all who have received the gift of being born, then pick on those who haven’t, shrink our understanding of human dignity and human rights.

Mason was one of only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the document: He thought it needed a Bill of Rights and an immediate end to the importation of slaves. It took 78 years and a civil war for slavery to end. The Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision lasted for 58 years until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) weakened it, and subsequent decisions and laws ended it.

It’s 48 years since Roe v. Wade, which has polarized and poisoned American politics. The Supreme Court over the next year will decide whether we begin to heal or become that nation of vigilantes.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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