Recent headlines report that Alfie Evans’ fate was decided in a High Court in Liverpool, England, amounting to a British invasion of parental rights. In some sense, however, the case of Alfie Evans was also affected by an American court in 1973 in the Roe v. Wade decision. 

The name of the landmark decision permitting abortion-on-demand has proven misleading because, while it only identified two litigants, the case has affected and continues to affect billions of people around the world. Indeed, if you asked people in America or around the world to name one U.S. Supreme Court case, it would not be Gideon v. Wainright, or United States v. Nixon, or Marbury v. Madison—it would be Roe v. Wade. And insofar as it has shaped public, legal, and medical opinion on the ethics of terminating innocent life, it influenced the case of Alfie Evans. 

Since Alfie was euthanized in England, one might conclude that the Abortion Act—a 1967 British ordinance legalizing abortion in England, Scotland and Wales—is a more obvious culprit than Roe. But while the Abortion Act marked a “Brexit” from the coalition of societies that protected the unborn, it never had the far-reaching effect of Roe. 

While the four-page Abortion Act was shocking in its cold efficiency, Roe amounted to a lengthy apologetic for abortion. It also introduced a radical skepticism about human life: when life begins, when life ends, and what lives are worth living. Once Roe deemed unborn life expendable, all life was cheapened. 

Why did Roe change people’s minds and opinions so dramatically? Because, as has been long been recognized, law is pedagogic; law is meant to teach. A government’s laws and ordinances—and, in this case, a mere court decision rather than a Constitutionally-authorized legislative act—send a message to society about what is considered right and wrong. 

Even in the pro-life movement, we’ve heard it said, “We don’t need to change the laws; we need to change people’s hearts.” But this is a false dichotomy: the reality is that law changes hearts. Roe v. Wade first changed laws and then hearts on a macro-societal, multi-national level. Once America’s highest court denied the value of the preborn, other countries wanted to follow America’s lead. And in countries that had already legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade was a pat on their back.

Mother Teresa made this observation in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in 1994:

America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.

It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience.

From the opposite side of the spectrum, Gloria Feldt, former head of Planned Parenthood, observed that Roe “fundamentally altered the legal, medical and political landscape of this country.” No argument there: Roe v. Wade did fundamentally alter our entire culture, including the medical landscape. The world once clamored to get into a government-run health care system, but when it clamors to get out, it finds a locked door. In the case of Alfie and his parents, that was no mere metaphor.      

Patients (which is nearly all of us, sooner or later) now receive medical treatment in an environment in which the very value of human life has been degraded. I am blessed to know lots of good physicians and I marvel at the advances of modern medicine, but I also know this: in the aggregate, Roe v. Wadechanged the way that much of society—and by extension, physicians—view human life.

Doctors come from the same society as comedians, lawyers, and journalists. That’s not great news. As the recent White House correspondent’s dinner illustrated, a “joke” about killing a baby in the womb was deemed hilarious by some elements of the upper echelon. Here’s the line:

He (Mike Pence) thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don't knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you got to get that baby out of there.

For many segments of our society, mocking Mike Pence is not the sin, it’s the absolution. From their perspective, it’s the strongly pro-life vice president who’s the creep, not the lady who makes abortion jokes. In fact, the guy or gal who refuses to laugh at that quip is the stick-in-the-mud. Fine. But just remember: the man or woman who giggles at that joke today might be the same physician who does your appendectomy tomorrow. 

That’s the enduring legacy of Roe v. Wade.