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Torn apart by Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

When churches and crisis pregnancy centers have to ramp up security, and Supreme Court justices have to repair to undisclosed locations in anticipation of the “Summer of Rage,” it is clear that “we the people” have no common understanding of the three things that were supposed to unite us: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

According to the predominant understanding of these things, there is also no way to hold on to them in common, together, at the same time.  For the life and liberty of the child are allegedly “incompatible” with the liberty and happiness of the mother (and the father).  We must choose one or the other.

And now, even after the invented “right” to abortion has been legally dislodged in Dobbs from somewhere between the lines of the Constitution, the choice between “incompatible” things will remain, legally and economically.

For with the return of the question to “democracy” in the states – and virtually nothing offered in Dobbs by way of legal reasoning to justify state laws that will protect the unborn child [1]  – some states will give “liberty” and “happiness” to one (the mother) while others give life to the other (the child).  The behemoth corporations will almost all align with the former and My Pillow with the latter.  Life and “liberty” quite literally will not co-exist.

From a cultural point of view, of course, the “incompatibility” is deep-seated.  How deep is a much-debated question.  In any event, our current inability to live freely, happily, and in common, is owing to the fact that our lives, liberties, and pursuits are the sorts of things we now define for ourselves, rather than being dimensions of a given, common reality that defines us.

There was once a time when we all knew that we had life because we were conceived and born of a mother and a father, who then awakened our freedom and guided us in our pursuit of fulfilling lives.  We understood that life, liberty, and the terms of our happiness were first given to us.

For that reason, we saw no incompatibility between our grown-up selves and becoming mothers and fathers, at least not in principle.

But now, according to the account of liberty that most shapes the common mentality, we must give birth to ourselves.  Worse.  We must first unbirth ourselves.  We must be liberated from the basic fact of our human nature, namely that we come to be from and through and with another, namely as a child in the mother’s womb.

Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) once wrote that the actual “fundamental figure of human existence itself” is now regarded as an “attack on freedom which assails it before any individual has a chance to live and act.”  If we want the right to eliminate the child in the mother’s womb, he suggests, it is first and foremost because we want to eliminate the memory of our having been one. It is as though we had to abort ourselves in order to be free!


 The common account of liberty was famously enshrined in Casey (1992): “Liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  It is that “right” – the “right” to “abort” ourselves – that justified and secured the “right,” guaranteed in Roe, almost 20 years earlier, to abort our children.

That those “rights” have just lost their constitutional moorings does not change the prevailing understanding of ourselves and our freedom, nor, of course, its fatal effects on ourselves and our children.

A woman, of course, doesn’t have to exercise the “right” she allegedly has.  She has “choice.”  But since a child will, in absolutely every case, contradict the mother’s autonomous “definition of existence,” it is clear what the best “choice” is supposed to be, for right-thinking and well-behaved women.

Given the goals that have been established for modern women – though not necessarily by women themselves – i.e., equal numbers of women in high-paying careers, in C-Suites, and on corporate boards, it is not hard to guess which way the balance has to tip.

Indeed, just after the leak of the Alito draft, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin expressed just such an apparent  “contradiction.”  Overturning Roe v Wade, said Yellin, would eliminate the right of women to “to make the decision.”  What decision? The right one, of course.

The one that would “increase labor force participation” and “earning potential,” as she put it.  Not the other one, the one that would have “damaging effects on the economy.”  The life of the child and the liberty of the adults (and the economy) on this understanding cannot co-exist.

It’s time to ask ourselves: what’s wrong with our concept of “the economy” such that it can only run at the expense of the people in it,  especially the ones with no “earning potential,” and those with less, because they are busy participating maximally in the “labor force,” – i.e., giving birth – and tend therefore to “lean out” of the other one. And what is wrong with our concept of the woman and her equality, such that she can only be “happy” at the expense of the child, and her distinct embodied relation to it?

The answers surely have something to do with our self-made definitions, and the society that embodies them.   People who aren’t born sons and daughters of mothers and fathers cannot help but be at war with their children, in principle.

Now that the Supreme Court has offered a possibility, however small, to turn our collective attention to the humanity of the child in the mother’s womb, we can begin to reconsider these deeper questions.  For, if we came to exist as distinct and free selves, by virtue of our mothers and fathers, then we can continue to live, freely and happily, as mothers and fathers.

We can co-exist, together with our children.


*Image: Lord, Thy Will Be Done [2] by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1855 [Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT]

You may also enjoy:

Sister Renée Mirkes, O.S.F.’s Aquinas on When Human Life Begins [3]

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s “On Human Life”: An Anniversary [4]


Margaret Harper McCarthy is a professor at the John Paul II Institute and editor of Humanum Review.