The U.S. Supreme Court justices, left to right, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; back row, left to right, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, Reuters)

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

James Carville’s memorable note-to-self during the 1992 presidential race will be the determining factor in the 2012 campaign, according to the common wisdom. That may be true. But as Catholics consider their responsibilities between now and Nov. 6, it would be good to remember that the future of the pro-life cause in America is also at stake.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 79. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are 76. Justice Stephen Breyer is 74. The president elected in November will likely appoint two Supreme Court justices, and may appoint as many as four, over the next quadrennium. If that next president replaces Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy with nominees who think that Roe v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) were wrongly decided, there could conceivably be a 7-2 Court majority to overturn (or, in effect, gut) those dreadful decisions and return the abortion debate (and related life-issues questions like euthanasia) to the states. There, the pro-life cause would win some states (likely the majority) and lose some others. With national opinion polls showing a pro-life majority for the first time in a long time, however, the conditions would be right for legally advancing the cause in a dramatic way.

If, conversely, Justice Scalia (and Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, and possibly Kennedy) were to be replaced in the next presidential term by nominees favorable to the Court’s judgment in Roe and Casey, the radical abortion license created by those two decisions might well be set in federal legal concrete for the next 30 years. The pro-life cause would go on, but it would continue under severe federal legal restraints.

That this choice should present itself in partisan terms is a national tragedy. In the aftermath of the 1992 election, several of us gathered around Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania to plan a Democratic nomination challenge to President Clinton in 1996. Casey had been blocked by the Clintons from speaking at the 1992 Democratic convention; he combined a strong pro-life record with an appeal to the important voting bloc of “Reagan Democrats;” he had twice been elected governor of a crucial swing state; and whether or not he could wrest the Democratic nomination away from President Clinton, a strong Casey campaign in 1996 would have established two crucial points – the pro-life issue is a bipartisan one, and there is ample room in the Democratic Party for gung-ho pro-lifers.

It would have been great fun; it might have been historic; but it was not to be. Governor Casey’s health went south, the challenge to President Clinton never materialized, and the throw-weight of pro-lifers within the Democratic Party was further reduced. Where all of that eventually led was demonstrated in early 2010, when pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives provided the slim margin of victory for Obamacare – the implementers of which are now whittling away religious freedom and asking dental insurers whether they provide abortion coverage in their plans, all in the name of a virtually unlimited and government-funded right to abortion-on-demand.

A civil rights issue

As the natural successor to the classic civil rights movement, the pro-life cause ought to have been a bipartisan cause; it should certainly have been the cause of Catholic progressives. Yet as early as 1967, Richard John Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor and a civil rights veteran, warned his fellow-liberals in a Commonweal article that they were betraying the civil rights cause by flirting with “liberalized” abortion laws. Neuhaus’s article won a prize from the Catholic Press Association; but that was then, and this is now. And as the Democratic Party has become ever more intransigent on the abortion question – with rare exceptions like Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois), a true pro-life hero – the pro-life cause has been abandoned by the old pro-civil rights coalition, even as African-American communities are decimated by the abortion license.

In any case, the pro-life stakes in 2012 could not be greater. Men and women of conscience will form their judgments accordingly.