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The limits of the law

The world after Dobbs has some sobering lessons for Christians


A pregnant activist displays a sticker during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa, Fla. on July 23, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack

The limits of the law
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Recent polling confirms what political trends have already shown, evident in the American political landscape after nearly a half-century of Roe v. Wade. Support for abortion access remains stubbornly widespread, and while this is certainly disappointing for the pro-life movement, there are some important lessons that we must learn and apply for effective Christian witness into the future.

Having fought for the overturning of Roe v. Wade for so long, many conservatives and pro-life activists were unprepared for the day when that “egregiously wrong” decision, as Justice Alito described it, would finally be undone. The Dobbs decision returned the question of abortion to the states, and so much attention had been focused on the federal judicial system for so long that the grassroots ground game was flat-footed. Even the most dedicated and devoted defenders of life had a hard time imagining what the details of a post-Roe future might look like, and when that day arrived the complexity of engaging the issues effectively across 50 different state environments was—and continues to be—a massive challenge.

It was in some sense entirely natural for pro-lifers to be inadequately prepared for a post-Roe world, and this leads to another important lesson: The law inevitably has a formative impact on our moral imaginations. The Christian tradition has always understood the pedagogical function of the law. The law is a teacher, and for decades under the Roe abortion regime Americans were taught by the law of the land that unlimited access to abortion is not only a necessary accommodation for a fallen world, but is actually a positive good, a fundamental human right, and a nonnegotiable entailment of human autonomy.

Good law will shape our culture in good ways, but bad law will also shape our culture in bad ways, and the legal regime inaugurated by Roe v. Wade seriously malformed the norms, attitudes, and perceptions of all Americans of all convictions. Even the most ardent pro-life advocates have had the boundaries of our imaginations shaped by a regime that relentlessly and pervasively proclaimed a gospel of unconstrained and unlimited choice and promoted a culture of death.

A pro-abortion legal context held sway for nearly a half century, and so it is unsurprising that generations of Americans coming of age in this time have been acculturated to a society that permits and even celebrates abortion on demand. The law shapes culture and helps teach right from wrong, and so a culture formed in a deficient legal environment will not be renewed overnight or with a single Supreme Court decision. But now that the life question has returned to the states in a new way after Dobbs, there’s a further lesson to be learned about the relationship between law and culture. Just as law inevitably influences and informs cultural norms and attitudes, so too do cultural norms and attitudes come to expression in the law and in turn shape the promulgated laws of the land.

We must promote the pro-life vision in both law and culture, or ultimately we will lose both.

The world after the Dobbs decision makes clearer the dynamics of the situation that has always held true: The pro-life cause is holistic and comprehensive. It has to do with the dignity of the human person from conception to eschatological consummation, from before birth to after death. It also has to do with the laws of the land, whether codified by legislatures or proclaimed by judicial decisions. But the pro-life movement also has to engage the cultural challenges and opportunities. We need better laws to protect human life. But we also need to work to shape a culture that rightly values human beings and affirms their dignity in absolute terms.

The choice is not between responsible engagement either in law or in culture, but rather the challenge is to work towards reform and renewal in both law and culture at the same time. Not every person or every organization is either called to or equipped to do it all. But as a movement pro-lifers must work on all fronts. We must promote the pro-life vision in both law and culture, or ultimately we will lose both. And we must do it in all venues, from our homes and our churches to our neighborhoods and local and state governments, up to and including Congress, the executive branch, and the Supreme Court.

It is easy to be discouraged that, after such a momentous victory for life in the Dobbs decision, there have been so many setbacks in various states. What we realize now is that the post-Roe world was not the end of the pro-life movement, but in many ways just the end of the beginning, and now the real battle for a just legal and cultural environment is underway. Even while the early returns are not encouraging, we must remember the conviction that animates the pro-life movement, so memorably expressed by Richard John Neuhaus: “We shall not weary, we shall not rest.”


Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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