The Legacy of Roe v. Wade for Bioethics -- By: Scott B. Rae

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 07:2 (Summer 2003)
Article: The Legacy of Roe v. Wade for Bioethics
Author: Scott B. Rae

The Legacy of Roe v. Wade for Bioethics

Scott B. Rae

Scott B. Rae is Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California where he has taught since 1989. Dr. Rae received his Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the University of Southern California. He serves as an ethicist in a number of hospitals and medical centers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and has most recently co-authored with J. P. Moreland, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (InterVarsity).


In the thirty years since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, the world of bioethics has undergone enormous changes. Since 1973, medical technology has opened up new vistas unimagined at that time and created new ethical dilemmas both for physicians at the bedside and legislators making public policy. For example, stem cell, embryo and fetal tissue research are going ahead (with or without federal funding) and show promise for alleviating the symptoms of various diseases, though there have been surprisingly few significant breakthroughs to date. Scientists can now clone human embryos and may one day in the near future accomplish human cloning from cells taken from adults, formerly the material for science fiction. Furthermore, the Human Genome Project has provided new avenues for genetic testing and diagnosis of genetic disease, opening up vast new pools of information on one’s genetic predispositions. These tests can be performed on both adults and children in the womb. Though medicine is no closer to treating many of the most debilitating genetic diseases, the new information is very useful to patients in managing their risk and beginning available treatments in a timely fashion.

When the Roe decision was delivered and law protected abortion on demand, few people imagined the impact that the Court’s decision would have on other aspects of bioethics. In fact, only a handful of pro-life advocates were bold enough to predict that it would radically alter the ways in which society viewed prenatal life. Some even predicted that the decision would come back to affect the way society views euthanasia, a claim widely dismissed as extreme pro-life rhetoric. Yet, thirty years later, those who predicted such things are able to say, “I told you so.” The Roe decision profoundly changed the landscape of bioethics in the United States. Its impact is still felt today and the background of legal abortion has changed the way society thinks about many important bioethical issues. It is clear that the change in the law left an indelible pedagogical impression on society and the way we think about ethics at the edges of life. I will suggest that the ripple effect of Roe is felt today in the areas of...

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