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Dobbs’ legacy, law’s pedagogy

A drop in abortions shows the teaching function of the law at work

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

<em>Dobbs</em>’ legacy, law’s pedagogy
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Years from now, you and I might run into her at the store, at the dog park, at church after service. She wouldn’t have been born, we find out, if it hadn’t been for Dobbs, or for her home state’s restrictions of abortion thereafter. She’s one of us, a member of humanity, who wouldn’t have been alive otherwise. She’s one of us Americans, who would have been part of generations of aborted children, more than 60 million strong. Except she’s standing before us, warm in the flesh, hair glinting in the sun, eyes twinkling. 

Let’s call her Grace. A gift she is. And as of today, multiply it by 10,000—and counting.

The first set of data on the numbers of abortion post-Dobbs is out. In the two months since the Supreme Court decision, abortion is down by an estimated six percent. That’s more than 10,000 nationwide. Red states that restrict abortion following Dobbs see the biggest drop: no surprise. But even with some states like New York, Illinois, and California hosting women seeking abortions from red states and even with women seeking abortion-inducing pills online, this is stunning. Upwards of 10,000 more babies have been born just in the last two months, each loved by God, each a gift to all of us, unique and unrepeatable.

This is happy news no matter how we see it. Here is just one perspective.

It is routinely remarked that law is downstream from culture. That is certainly true, but that’s only half of the story. Culture is also downstream from law. How so? Well, law is a teacher—and a powerful one at that. Law teaches right and wrong in what it enshrines. In people’s minds, what’s illegal is wrong, and what’s legal is right (or at least not wrong).

“Patients are more strongly voicing feelings like they are doing something that’s wrong or illegal.”

Consider the following anecdote, based on an Illinois nurse’s conversations with women post-Dobbs at the abortion clinic where she works. Many of the women come from Missouri, where abortion is now limited. She reported,

In the wake of Roe falling, discussions with patients have gotten more difficult. Patients are more strongly voicing feelings like they are doing something that’s wrong or illegal. Or they’re experiencing a larger amount of confusion about their decision to terminate because there’s this bigger overarching idea of “Well, if the Supreme Court or the government says that this isn’t legal, then I’m clearly doing something wrong.” We’ve started to see patients in absolute crisis. At the clinic, we hear over and over, “Oh, it’s illegal in my state. Oh, I can’t do that.”

What’s more,

Patients are also dealing with a larger amount of indecision and internalized stigma. They’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to murder my baby,” or statements that reference this larger discussion that we’ve all been hearing. 

The pedagogical aspect of law is as clear as a bell in those little snippets of conversation with ordinary Americans. As aptly remarked by R. R. Reno, here the feelings of the women are trustworthy and illuminating. And where did those feelings come from? They come from abortion having been made illegal in the land.

A fruitful reading of Isaiah 44 contemplates culture as being what is left over from worship—that is, culture flows out of the cult, as it were. This makes sense insofar as what we revere in worship becomes that which is lifted up in the place of honor in the culture. On a more modest scale, but on a parallel plane, that which we lift up as worthy or good in law tends to make the culture view the thing as good. Law shapes our thinking and norms that way—for good or for ill.

So it matters that we get it right. It matters that what law says is good be what is truly good, and what law says is evil be what is truly evil. It matters that the “is” of the law be faithful to the “ought” of the moral fabric of reality. Thus the same Prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.”

In Dobbs what is evil has been rightly torn down, a cause for rejoicing. Massive work remains to persuade hearts and minds on the battleground of abortion in the states. But the good Lord has let us taste and see a little of the fruit of hard work for the law and culture of life, and how sweet is that fruit! May it increase more and more.

Adeline A. Allen

Adeline A. Allen is an associate professor of law at Trinity Law School.

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