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    PloughCast 41: The World after Roe

    The Vows That Bind, Part 5

    By Robert P. George, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 25, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah have a long conversation with Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University.

    A veteran of the pro-life movement, Robert P. George reflects on the opportunity that we now have to build just laws that support the wellbeing of mothers and their children, and, echoing Lincoln, of the need to heal the division between pro-life and pro-choice Americans as much as possible, without compromising on what we believe to be right.

    He discusses his thoughts about the future of pro-life politics, and the need for supporting both private and public aid to mothers and families.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Robert P. George: A Life for Life

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast. This is the fifth episode in our new series linked to our vows issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we will be speaking with a very special guest, friend of the podcast and of the magazine, Robert P. George.

    Peter Mommsen: Robert P. George is an American legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual who serves as the sixth McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Welcome, Robby.

    Robert P. George: Well, thank you. Thank you, Susannah and I want to say it’s always a pleasure to be involved with Plough. I am a great friend of the Bruderhof community. The community means a great deal to me. The community’s done a lot for me and my family, and I really do appreciate it, and I am an avid reader of Plough and learn so much from reading the magazine. So thanks for having me on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s very encouraging to hear. That’s the kind of thing that we print out if it’s written down and then put on our bulletin board to give ourselves a boost. So I guess to start out with you’ve been in this work of pro-life argumentation among other things, but pro-life has been the focus of a lot of your work, at least, for longer than Pete and I have been alive. What were your early disagreements with your current self? How did you get to you where you are intellectually in terms of conviction, both religious and philosophical, and what did you used to think that you no longer think?

    Robert P. George: Well, I was recruited into the pro-life movement when I was an adolescent by my mother. She was involved in the local Right to Life group in our community in West Virginia in Appalachia, and therefore I’ve been pro-life my entire life, as long as I’ve thought about these issues.

    I was the first of five children, all boys. I don’t have a very clear memory of my mother being pregnant with the brother right behind me because I was too small to retain a memory from then, but I remember my three youngest brothers when my mom was carrying them, and it was very clear to me, even before I’d ever heard of abortion or the pro-life cause, that what mom had inside her were not potatoes or rocks or alligators, they were little babies, little boys or girls, turned out to be all boys.

    When I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen, my mom recruited me into the pro-life movement. This was before Roe v. Wade. That’s how ancient I am. This would’ve been around 1971, when a small number of American states had begun removing protections that had historically been there for unborn babies. New York was one of those states, California was one, Colorado was another. So what became the big struggle over abortion began then and of course in 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, basically eliminating all effective protection for children in the womb across the entire United States.

    It was on January 22, 1973, on that day, I can tell you where I was and what I was doing. I have a very clear memory of it. I was in high school and I was working a pro-life table, handing out pro-life literature at the University near where I lived, West Virginia University. A student walked by and said to us, “Hey, there’s been a big decision from the Supreme Court on your issue,” and we asked him, “Well, what was it? What did the court say?” And he said, “I don’t know. I just heard that there was a big issue. I heard it on the radio.”


    Now of course, in those days you couldn’t get your news immediately because there was no internet or anything like that. So we all rushed to find a radio, and even then we had to wait until the hour because the news came on the hour, otherwise you were listening to music or something like that. So when the hour came and we got the broadcast news, we got the very bad news that the decision had been very unfavorable for unborn babies, that legal protection had been removed from unborn children. The initial report said it was for the first trimester of pregnancy, the first three months. It turned out to be even worse than that. It was the removal of formal protections for unborn babies all the way through six months and really even further than that effectively.

    So it was a catastrophic decision from the point of view of anybody who believed, as I believed then and believe now and have always believed, in the profound and inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. And on that day I said, as did every pro-life person I know and knew, I said, “This will not stand. We will do whatever it takes. We will work for as long as it takes.” We had no idea it would take this long, but we said, “We will work for as long as it takes to overturn this unjust decision.” And the pro-life movement went to work that day, and we worked for forty-nine years, five months and two days before we finally achieved our goal of reversing Roe v. Wade.

    Now it’s very important for everyone to understand – and not only do non Americans not understand this, a lot of Americans don’t understand this – that reversing Roe v. Wade does not make a single abortion unlawful. It does not protect a single unborn child. What it does is remove the impediment that prevents the American people in the states acting through their legislatures to protect unborn babies. It removes that impediment, so now we can do the hard work of democracy to restore protection to the lives of our precious unborn brothers and sisters, the tiniest, most vulnerable members of the human community.

    Section II: Robert P. George: After Roe

    Now, when that news came down, of course I was very gratified. How could I not be having devoted so much of my life as had so many others, many great heroes who didn’t live to see the day when Roe fell? But the overwhelming thought in my mind, which I recorded immediately actually in a tweet, in this social media age, that’s what you do.

    So the thought that came into my mind was not one of elation or triumph. Rather, it was President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address where very somberly, very soberly, he recalled that the Civil War had been fought between people, both sides of which thought they were in the right, both were fighting for what they believed justice required. They both thought they were fighting for a moral cause and even though Lincoln could not see the morality of the cause for which the Confederacy fought, he could not judge that to be moral any more than I can judge the pro-abortion position to be moral. Nevertheless, as he said, “While we have to fight and fight hard for justice, let us judge, not let we be judged. Let’s not be too harsh. Let’s remember that the people against whom we’ve been locked in this struggle are people who are doing their best by their best lights to do what they believe morality and justice require.”

    So Lincoln concluded that speech, which was really quite short, he concluded that second inaugural address by saying, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God has given us to see the right, let us complete the work we are in,” and that’s the thought that came to my mind. I knew that across the country, while people like me were filled with gratitude, that this had finally come, this day we worked for had finally come, there were lots of other people, not bad people, people who were doing their best to fight for a cause they thought was just, who were going to be feeling tragedy and outrage because they believed that the court was now doing a grave injustice.

    I don’t want to judge them anymore than Lincoln wanted to judge the supporters of the Confederacy or even those who supported slavery, even though we have to fight against the evil that they are themselves unwittingly advancing, but I do want to proceed as Lincoln advised us to proceed with malice toward none, with charity for all, and with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right and that’s the future, Susannah, of the pro-life movement. It’s moving forward with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, but without demonizing anybody, without punishing anybody, without treating our adversaries as anything less than fully human beings, who are doing their best, by their best lights to do what they think is right, let’s go forward with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right with malice toward none, with charity for all.

    And we do have a lot of work to do because as I say, Roe versus Wade simply removes the impediment to doing the hard work of democratic citizenship and restoring protection to the law for unborn babies, and we also have to remember, as the pro-life movement has always done, that we love mother and child alike and equally. We recognize that there are women who are in very difficult situations because of an unexpected pregnancy, a difficult pregnancy. There are women who are subjected to pressures of all sorts, economic pressures, social pressure, pressure from boyfriends, from husbands, from parents, from employers, who don’t want them to be pregnant, who see the easy way out for them as that woman having an abortion. It’s a complex set of considerations, a complex set of factors that leads some women, often desperate, to want to seek abortions.

    So we need to reach out in love to our sisters who are in need, loving equally mother and child and I think there’s a cultural dimension to that, there’s much that can be done by private initiative and charitable work, there’s a role for government in that, including public funding of support for women. There are cultural norms that can be addressed to make sure that that having children and bringing up children does not unnecessarily impede the career prospects or educational opportunities for women.

    There’s a lot that we can do and we need to do it all. We need to be comprehensive, and that’s not foreign to the pro-life movement. Our adversaries depict us as being hardhearted, not caring about women’s equality, not caring about women’s needs, but we’re not that and now we have to get about the work of protecting unborn babies while we’re doubling our efforts to protect their mothers as well, and that’s what I will devote the rest of my life to.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s fascinating. I loved the reference to Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Robby, this is a question I’ve been looking forward to asking you. Ever since the Dobbs ruling came down. If you think of Lincoln’s speaking at that time, and of course he didn’t live to see it, but it was a very long struggle after the victory of the Union side before first slavery was fully put an end to in the Americans South and then legalized discrimination, lynching, segregation. It was a multi-decade struggle.

    So how should we look at that? What does come after Roe? You mentioned there’s the cultural, there’s the political, there’s social and moral norms. What does the person who has been committed pro-lifer do now? How does one decide what to put one’s shoulder to?

    Robert P. George: Well, I think all of us need to support legal protection for the unborn. That will mean that for some of us, we need to be active in the political sphere. All of us as voters, nobody’s excused from this, all of us need as voters to prioritize the pro-life issue, no question about that, but not all of us need to be in positions of political leadership. Some of us need to do that. Some of us are called to do the intellectual work that needs to be done. That’s where I’ve tried to make my contributions. That’s where I will continue to make my contributions. Many of us are called to work hands on with women at crisis pregnancy centers and with children, bringing the love and care and material and moral and spiritual assistance to our sisters who need that. So there are different vocations, different callings, different things that we can do, but we all need to be doing our bit.

    We can all pray, as people have prayed now for nearly fifty years, for the success of the pro-life movement, we can continue and we need to continue praying and for asking God’s blessing on our work. There is so much to be done, no one person or no one profession can do this by himself or by itself, it’s just a large number of things that need to be done and we all need to be doing our part. It’s going to be a long struggle as the civil rights struggle was a long struggle and even that struggle continues to today. To some extent these kinds of issues are perennial.

    Section III: Robert P. George: Pro-Life Jurisprudence & Policy

    I believe in a … what’s sometimes called a gradualist or incremental strategy for protecting unborn babies. I know we’re not going to be able to get ideal legislation that protects all unborn children all at once. It’s going to take time. We’re going to have to get victories where we can. We need to work at the state level. I think eventually this issue will shift to the federal level and Congress will enact laws. It won’t completely displace the role of the states, but I think eventually the federal government will play a role.

    I believe under the Constitution, the federal government is entitled to. Some conservatives and some pro-life people don’t think the federal government is entitled to play a role in this area. I disagree with them. I think Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment empowers Congress to protect unborn persons in their equal protection and due process rights, especially relevant here are their equal protection rights, under Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment. Professor John Finnis of Oxford and I submitted a brief in the Dobbs case in which we just provided an avalanche of evidence to show that the original public meaning of the word “person” at the time of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes a provision saying that no state shall deny any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law or any person in its jurisdiction of the equal protection of the laws, we showed definitively, this is just not really contestable anymore, the evidence is too overwhelming, that the word “person” did include the unborn. We see this from medical treatises, we see this from legal treatises, and we see this in legal cases.

    In the 1820s, an important scientific discovery, the discovery of the mammalian ovum by Karl von Baer, made the science of embryology possible. We got modern human embryology as a result of von Baer’s discovery of how things work, of the mammalian ovum and the process of fertilization. So we began to see as early as the 1820s, that human development begins with the formation of a new human being in the earliest embryonic stage, that then develops, literally by an internally directed process, from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child and adolescent stages, and ultimately into adulthood with his or her determinateness and unity and identity fully intact.

    And by 1868, this was being reflected in laws around the nation. The historic common law protections of unborn children were significantly expanded by statutes and a campaign led, you’ll be interested to hear perhaps, by the American Medical Association, in no small measure because of the discovery of how human life actually does begin and the realization that we have a human being from the earliest developmental stage.

    It has been a long time since there was any real doubt about when life begins or whether the human embryo is indeed a human being. We’ve known this now for a very, very long time, and there’s no excuse for not knowing it. The science is very clear, it’s beyond dispute.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You’ve submitted that brief; you’ve obviously worked a great deal on the concept of fetal personhood, and this is obviously something that you, that John Finnis and that many others, including Hadley Arkes, who’s my old professor, have been working on for many years. What are the specific legal and constitutional issues involved? What are the prospects of enshrining that concept in law and, related, what are the limitations in legal reasoning that Dobbs articulated? What do you think should have been different and what are the steps that might be taken towards a stronger establishment of those ideas in law?

    Robert P. George: Well, good. I had forgotten, Susannah, that you had worked with my beloved friend, Professor Hadley Arkes. He’s a great hero of the pro-life movement and June 24th of 2022 was as much his day as anyone’s day when Roe finally fell, deservedly fell, and Dobbs liberated the American people to enter the democratic deliberation domain and begin the process of protecting unborn children.

    In the brief that Professor Finnis and I submitted, we argued that a proper understanding of the original public meaning in the post-Civil War period of the Fourteenth Amendment required that states protect unborn children against elective abortions. That is abortions in cases where the pregnancy poses no threat to the life or severe threat to the health of the mother. We argued that the court itself should declare that to be the case, which would in effect invalidate any state laws that failed to accord protection to unborn children by prohibiting elective abortions.

    Now, at the same time, we recognize that mercifully rarely by historical standards, but it’s still the case to some extent today, despite our wonderful modern medicine, that a pregnancy can pose a serious threat to maternal health. Ectopic pregnancies are good examples of that, and there are some other examples and in those cases, as has always been the case in our law, where the life of the mother is at risk as a result of the pregnancy, we have argued, the pro-life movement has always argued, the law has always recognized that you can perform acts precisely designed to preserve maternal life even when the foreseen side effect of performing those acts results in fetal death, is fetal death.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is the so-called Principle of Double Effect?

    Robert P. George: That’s sometimes called the Principle of Double Effect. I don’t particularly like that characterization of it. The key thing is to understand that in these cases, fetal death is not the precise object of the act. In these cases, fetal death is outside the scope of intention of the person performing the act. We can tell that simply by doing the thought experiment. If miraculously, despite what we thought was going to happen, the baby survives, have you accomplished everything that you’ve set out to accomplish? Well, yes, if the mother’s health is preserved, her life is preserved and the baby doesn’t die, we’ve still accomplished everything we sought to accomplish. So we didn’t seek to accomplish the baby’s death – that was outside the scope of intention, even if it’s foreseen and accepted.

    Our adversaries, the people who are promoting abortion today, have sunk, and I don’t mean to demonize them here, I just wish they would stick to the truth about this, they have sunk to claiming that the pro-life movement would prohibit surgical interventions to protect maternal life in the case, for example, of ectopic pregnancies. That has never been the position of the pro-life movement as a movement, it’s not my position, it’s not the position of the Catholic church or the Evangelical community or the Bruderhof community or any other community that stands for pro-life principle.

    The good news is it’s rarer than it used to be, but still sometimes tragically, there’s no way to preserve maternal life without performing an act that will result in fetal death, and that act should be permissible because fetal death is outside the scope of intention. You’re not targeting the baby precisely for death. So I want to get that message out there just because so much misinformation and disinformation is floating around here, and it really should stop.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and I think that’s an important note to make. The other thing that I often see happening is a complete ignorance of the long work of crisis pregnancy centers, as if those things had never existed.

    Robert P. George: Where it hasn’t been ignored, it has been attacked. This is really an outrage. Here are people, mostly women. If you go to these crisis pregnancy centers, the heroes who operate those centers are overwhelmingly women, and these women are heroes, and despite that, they have been under constant harassment from the so-called pro-choice side, from pro-choice politicians, from pro-choice activists. The people promoting abortion have tried to shut down the centers that give women an effective choice, an actual choice. They give them an alternative to the destruction of the child by abortion. This is a pretty good indicator of bad faith on the part of many people.

    And then remember, I’m the guy who says don’t demonize the opposition and I don’t want to demonize the opposition, but there is a plain fact that many on the pro-choice side, including politicians, have done their best to harass and disable and shut down our wonderful pro-life crisis pregnancy centers that provide genuine love and care and material and moral support to women in need and it’s disgraceful to take action or to smear or defame those programs, those centers and the people, mostly women, who work in those centers.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I’m actually in the middle of reporting a piece for Pete on crisis pregnancy centers, so I have these stats at my fingertips, which is really fun. In 2019, the value of the goods and services provided by the 2,700 centers affiliated with the three major networks was … wait, shoot. OK. It’s a lot. I’m going to drop these stats in the show notes. Just under 2 million were served that year by almost 70,000 staff, eight out of ten of them are volunteers, and basically that level of support, like that kind of value of support has been going on for the fifty years since Roe, obviously backdated to the appropriate dollar amounts in earlier years. This has just been a phenomenally valuable effort over fifty years.

    Robert P. George: There, Susannah, is the evidence of the way in which our movement has brought love and care and concern to mother and baby alike, that’s how we love them both. That’s the practical way that we love them both, by caring for both, by protecting both, extending the mantle of protection over both spending time, spending money, putting all the resources that we can make available to the cause of bringing this care. Again, it’s not just material, it’s also moral, it’s also spiritual, but this is care to women who are very often in need.

    One of the most disgraceful things that we’ve witnessed in the wake of Roe is physical attacks on our crisis pregnancy centers. Arson attacks, graffiti attacks on our centers, threats against our pro-life centers. What’s that all about? Where is that coming from? This is outrageous. These are attacking the people who care for women in need.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Something that astonishes me and the other aspect of it is that I think something like 17 percent is public funding, almost all of it is very small value private donations.

    Robert P. George: And I want those private donations to continue. I make them myself, but we also do need public support. The government of the United States, to its eternal discredit and shame, has poured hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, more than that, into the pro-abortion cause over the last fifty years. That’s a bad use of money, a use of money to kill or promote killing of unborn babies.

    I would be thrilled if even a percentage, say 20 percent of that kind of money, could go into supporting our crisis pregnancy centers. That would make a huge difference for women as well as protecting their babies. That would give women a genuine alternative to resorting to the killing of the child. I can’t help but think most mothers do not want to do away with the child in the womb. They do it under a kind of duress very often, they don’t see where else to turn, what else they can do. We know in many cases of the dreadful psychological effects on women of making that choice or so-called choice.

    So we could spare women that, many, many women that, by making more resources available and part of that should really be governmental assistance. The money that has been going to Planned Parenthood should be going to our crisis pregnancy centers, our pro-life centers.

    Peter Mommsen: So I’d like to drill a bit more to that, Robby, because as you said earlier, the Dobbs decision really returns these questions to the democratic forum in a way that they haven’t been since 1973. The thing is that the Roe decision for the pro-life movement did help crystallize things. There was this very specific focus that one could galvanize a pretty broad coalition around. Unfortunately not a fully broad American coalition, but Catholics and Evangelicals in 1973 weren’t talking to each other very much.

    The abortion issue, the Roe decision itself kind of resorted American politics in many ways. Things like supporting mothers are much more debatable, much more diffused, there’s much more prudential decision making to be done. How do you think about that? It just seems like there’s a kind of clarity to the moral issues raised by laws permitting or even promoting the killing of the unborn versus the harder work of supporting mothers, supporting families, supporting kids.

    Robert P. George: Well, we have to do it all. Now I know that there are many people who are pro-choice, they identify as pro-choice, they’ll tell poll takers that they’re pro-choice, they’ll tell friends that they’re pro-choice, but who are deeply ambivalent about abortion, and I can’t help but think that by reaching out the hand of friendship to them in this new Dobbs era, the post Roe era, we can persuade them to work with us where we have common ground and that is protecting mothers and helping mothers to avoid feeling the necessity to abort their children.

    Now, unfortunately, that won’t be everybody, and again, I don’t want to demonize people on the other side. I’m against demonizing, I warn people not to demonize people on the other side. There are many people of good will, reasonable people of goodwill on the other side, but there are some in the pro-abortion movement who will not cooperate with us, even when it comes to what should be common ground, providing aid and assistance to women in need so that they won’t have to have abortions or feel they have to have abortions.

    There are some who are so fanatically committed to the abortion cause that they will not join hands with us. They have, in a certain sense, and I so deeply regret to say this or even use the word, they have sacramentalized abortion. It’s become a kind of touchstone for them so that they cannot do anything, bring themselves to do anything or work with anybody who wants to actually provide real alternatives to abortion, and we just have to pray that their hearts will be softened and that we can reach them. But that’s, I think and hope and trust, a minority of people who say that they are pro-choice. I hope and trust that the majority will be willing to work with us on the common ground of bringing some badly necessary funding to centers that will give women very practical, very real alternatives to the lethal violence of abortion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There are also initiatives out there, including the Romney plan and others that would envision a more robust role for government in supporting women and families in general, just given that as it’s been shown to be the case, the majority, I think it’s the first reason that women give for seeking abortion, is financial uncertainty or that’s one of the top two in basically every poll. There has been this libertarian alliance between social conservatives and libertarians in the past. Do you think that there’s going to be able to be a role for more robust government help that many in the pro-life movement will be behind going forward?

    Robert P. George: Yes. I’ve already said enough that I know you can tell that I believe there’s a bigger role for government than perhaps our libertarian friends would permit. Now, I’m not for unlimited government, nor do I think government alone has responsibility here. This is why I said earlier that I think that there are also important roles for private initiative. I think we should continue to contribute financially and in every other way we can to the support of women who are in need. I do that myself, my mother has always done that, other members of my family have always done that. I don’t want the government taking over everything, but what we can do consistently with the principle of subsidiary, I’m for government doing. I don’t want government to displace the role of private initiative, but I don’t think it has to be either/or.

    There are ways in which public and private support can be combined to do the best we can do for women who are in need. And there’s other legislation that needs to be done, pro-family legislation. There’s alterations to our tax laws, the child tax credit. There are reforms in a number of areas that would be very helpful here to women in need and others. I’m for a pro-family agenda at the state level and at the federal level legislatively. For the federal role I commend everybody to look at the work and writings by Patrick T. Brown, who’s a longtime congressional staffer, a personal friend of mine, someone who has put out a plan, a pro family agenda for legislation at the federal level, and I think what he’s onto there makes a lot of sense.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, he’s doing excellent work. I think he’s at EPPC as well.

    Robert P. George: I think that’s right, and like so many of the best scholars these days, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center under the new president, Ryan Anderson, who is an incredibly fine scholar and great leader.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Obviously we’ve been focusing very much on the question of abortion in America. We don’t just have readers in America, we’ve got readers all over the world. I’ve heard many people argue that some kind of solution, like some kind of compromise solution, something like they have in Germany, where abortion is essentially legal up to twelve weeks and quite difficult after that, but very, very common before that, is that … one of the things that I’m worried about is that there will be a loss of energy in the pro-life movement if something like that happens because it seems to me that one of the reasons that there’s not as robust a pro-life movement in the UK and especially in Europe, is that abortion is their abortion laws are not as liberal. Does that make any sense and is that something that we should be worried about?

    Robert P. George: Yes, Susannah, I see exactly what you’re saying and I think it’s a legitimate worry. We, I think, have to sustain within the pro-life movement, a culture that embraces the incrementalist strategy, which would see the change from our current law or what until yesterday was our current law, to something more like the German law, as a huge step forward but does not see the German law as the final stage.

    Incrementalism means we always need to be moving forward, looking for opportunities, educating the public so that we can get to the next step with the ultimate goal being protecting every child in law and welcoming every child in life, where we have a legal culture and a broader culture that are pro-life in the most robust sense, protecting babies before birth, protecting babies after birth, protecting mothers while they’re expecting, protecting mothers and families when baby has been born, accepting gratefully whatever progress we can make in this legislative session or that legislative session, but without ever thinking that we are at the final spot until we are at the final spot, when we have protected every child and created an environment that’s welcoming for every child. I hope that we will someday get there.

    I also know that I will not live to see that. I do hope I live to see a good deal more progress, but in my own prayers … I am definitely not Moses, but I do in my own prayers ask God for this, if he would do me this kindness. Even though I know I can’t live to see the day when we reach our ultimate goal, where we really do embrace as a nation, as a people, perhaps as a world, the profound and inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family, could I at least be allowed to go to the mountaintop and see across to the promised land? I just want to be able to glimpse it, even though I won’t get there.

    Section IV: Robert P. George: Recovering Human Worth

    Peter Mommsen: That leads into the next thing that I’d love to ask you, Robby, and this is how much is this specific issue of abortion, which is one of the great big and central pro-life issues, how much is it coupled with other pro-life issues? Of course, looking back historically, it was really the advent of Christianity, in Western culture in particular, but also elsewhere, that first widely established the idea that, for instance, infanticide is wrong, that euthanasia of the disabled is wrong. There’s a range of things like this, and it seems to me that just as we’re, I think those of us who agree that the unborn deserve the same right to life as any other human being, are celebrating the Dobbs decision in this country, those old forces of utilitarian calculus about human life reappear elsewhere.

    I’m particularly thinking about our neighbors to the north and Canada, there’s been increasingly disturbing news from there, just over the course of the summer it’s kind of bubbled up, of use of their new Medical Assistance in Dying law being extended further and further out, even to infants, even to the disabled, even, as in some cases in Belgium, to those who are simply clinically depressed. This is often tied to financial considerations: what will we save our health service system if people who cost us a lot of money are helped to exit life a little earlier? So how tightly are issues like this coupled and what kind of attention should we be giving to these things that aren’t related to the abortion debate in the United States directly?

    Robert P. George: Well, they are related indirectly. Once you compromise the principle of the profound inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family, it’s no holds barred. At that point there is no principled basis for stopping here rather than there. It’s why you see the slide right down the slippery slope from abortion to the killing of the elderly, to the killing of the cognitively disabled or the physically handicapped, to those who are inconvenient to us.

    Once you admit that it’s OK to violate the central norm of our tradition against the direct killing, at least of the innocent – I would extend it to all direct killing as you know – but once you license the so-called right or claim that it is right to allow the killing of innocent human beings, there just is no stopping place. There’s no logical stopping place, and pretty soon you are where Canada now is and some European jurisdictions now are, which is killing people because they’re depressed, participating in cooperating in their suicides, facilitating their suicides, allowing people to be pressured into “wanting” suicide – young, otherwise physically healthy, people who are clinically depressed for whatever reason. Instead of meeting their needs, instead of actually caring for them, we end up killing them and that is just tragic and disgraceful.

    Our motto, if I can quote my beloved late friend Richard John Newhouse, the great father Richard John Newhouse, our motto needs to be always to care, never to kill. Always to care, never to kill. Killing is never a form of caring. A person is to be loved, cherished, protected, stood by in solidarity, not to be killed. Killing is not the answer.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It seems to me that a lot of these questions get at a more basic sense of an appropriate non-sovereignty over our own lives. The idea that when we take our own lives in our hands or when we take another person’s life in our hands, we’re holding something that’s sacred and that it’s not up to us to dispose of.

    I’m not sure how you can quite separate out the question of suicide even from the question of murder, whether it be murder of young children before they’re born or after they’re born or of the disabled. All of these seem to me to be a question of … how do we understand what it means to have agency in our lives, but not the right of life and death over human lives because there’s something that is so profoundly sacred about them that even our own lives are not ours to dispose of?

    And I’m not quite sure how we can get that back. That seems to me to be something that I thought that we had sort of settled on with the end of the Roman slave state and the Roman infanticide state and the gradual loosening of slavery in Europe, and then it came back with slavery in the New World, the sense of people having this kind of horrific right over other people, and then it has come back, I think, with a greater norm of suicide itself being OK, or euthanasia, voluntary euthanasia being OK, and I just don’t see how we can get … how can we get that sense of the sacredness of human life back?

    Robert P. George: Well, we have to overcome the prevailing ideology, we have to defeat the prevailing ideology that creates the mentality or manifests the mentality that you’re talking about there, Susannah, and that is an ideology shaped by what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called expressive individualism. In a culture of expressive individualism, there will be a religion that will emerge – and it has emerged in modern Western cultures. It’s very radically unlike Biblical religion, it’s very radically unlike Judaism and Christianity, it’s radically unlike Islam, it’s actually quite radically unlike the great Eastern traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example. It is what another great pro-life hero who’s gone before – Robert P. Casey, the former governor of Pennsylvania, was a great pro-life hero and he called this religion that has emerged in the culture of expressive individualism, the “cult of the imperial self.”

    We live in an age of the cult of the imperial self. In this religion – and this is what distinguishes it from the great faiths, East and West – in this religion, there are no unchosen obligations. The only moral obligations we have are those we freely assent to, we give to ourselves.

    In a sound religion you are going to recognize, as all the great faiths, again, East and West do, that some of our most stringent and important obligations are not obligations we ourselves have chosen. We didn’t choose to be born into a particular family, but we have certain obligations to our families, we have certain obligations in virtue of being born into this particular family. We didn’t choose to be born as Americans. Nobody chose to be born English or Scottish or Chinese, and yet there are some obligations that we have to our nation simply because, through no choice of our own, we are born in this nation rather than that nation, we’re citizens of this nation rather than that nation.

    The fundamental dividing line is, do you believe that we have certain unchosen obligations or not? If your faith is the cult of the imperial self, you believe we do not. If you’ve got some other faith, your likely belief is that we do and that those are very stringent, certainly for Christians and Jews and Muslims this is a very stringent obligation, the obligation to protect human life in all stages and conditions. That’s the sanctity of human life principle.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Including the sanctity of our own lives.

    Robert P. George: That’s right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’ve often thought about the idea of being born as being drafted and we’re not allowed to go AWOL from that calling.

    Robert P. George: Yeah, we don’t own ourselves. This is a mistake that the enlightenment philosopher John Locke made. He supposed that human beings own themselves and you can see why people fall into that error. They think, “Well, if I don’t own myself, then who owns me? Does the state own me? Can somebody else own me as a slave?” Certainly the state doesn’t own me, we don’t want to admit that principle. We don’t want to think other people can own me, “Then I must own myself,” but of course, it’s a straightforward fallacy if you think about a moment.

    The alternative to not owning yourself is not the state owns you or the slaveholder owns you, it’s that you are a person rather than a thing, and as such are not the sort of entity that can be owned. You can’t be owned by the state, you can’t be owned by the slave holder, you can’t be owned by yourself. You are not owned. Your obligations do not follow from who owns you, self or state or another person, they obtain in virtue of other considerations. Considerations of, ultimately, I think, considerations of integral human wellbeing and the most foundational principle of all ethics is the principle of the profound and inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family.

    That’s what gives us the inviolability of the self as well as the inviolability of others and in the Jewish and Christian traditions, in the Biblical tradition, this is articulated in the very first chapter of the very first book of our sacred scripture, the Bible, the Book of Genesis, where we are told that man, though fashioned from the mere dust of the earth, that the human being, unlike the brute animals, is made in the very image and likeness of the divine creator and ruler of all that is. That’s the Biblical expression, the Biblical presentation of the foundation of our dignity, the profound inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family.

    We don’t have ultimate sovereignty, power of life and death over any other human being or indeed over ourselves. We don’t enjoy that kind of sovereignty. We are godlike and therefore have a special dignity, but we are not God. We’re not Lord of life and death.

    Peter Mommsen: And that is the kind of indissoluble core at the heart of the pro-life movement and perhaps where we should wrap up our conversation. We may not have solved everything about what the future of the pro-life movement should be, but at least you’ve given us a great insight and a pointer to where we should head. I guess that returns us to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Robby?

    Robert P. George: Yes, with malice toward none, and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us continue and finish the work we have done.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thank you so much for joining us and thank you for your work and all your support and advice to Plough, and we really appreciate your joining us this afternoon.

    Robert P. George: Thank you, Peter. Thank you, Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met and share with your friends. For a lot more content like this check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe, $36 a year will get you the print magazine or for $99 a year, you can become a Member of Plough. That membership cares a whole range of benefits, from free books to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, the final episode of this series, Susannah will be speaking with rabbi and philosopher Zohar Atkins, and then we’ll be taking your questions.

    Contributed By RobertGeorge Robert P. George

    Robert P. George is McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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