On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice
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It would be hard to find any Republican seriously seeking national office today who would say of abortion what Lincoln said of slavery: "The Republican Party think it wrong—we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong." Why? Wasn't it the Republicans who first promised to support a "human-life amendment" outlawing abortion? Didn't Ronald Reagan often use his bully pulpit to speak out in behalf of the unborn? Yes—but that was then. In 1980 the Republicans set out to woo those who were later called Reagan Democrats, and one of the means was a pro-life plank, designed to counter the plank the Democrats had put in their platform four years earlier. The wooing worked all too well. Many of the conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants who streamed into the Republican Party in 1980 were ex-New Dealers, and they retained elements of the old faith. They may have cooled toward the welfare state, but they were not opposed to the use of government to promote social goals. Their primary goal, the outlawing of abortion, would itself involve the use of government; but even beyond that, these new "social conservatives" never really shared the Republicans' distrust of an activist government. Republican leaders thus greeted them warily. These Democrats-turned-Republican were seen to be useful during elections but a nuisance afterward. During the Reagan years they were given considerable verbal support, which at times greatly helped the pro-life cause (as, for example, at the UN International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984, when Reagan officials helped push through a final report stating that "abortion in no way should be promoted as a method of family planning"), though it never got beyond lip service. During the Bush Administration even lip service faltered as Republican officials decided that their party's "big tent" needed to accommodate the pro-choice view. "Read my lips," Bush said, but he was talking about "no new taxes." Bush's failure to keep his tax promise was seen as a major cause of his defeat in 1992, but in the ashes of this defeat lay what Republican leaders took to be a new sign of hope: they figured they could win elections on tax-and-spend issues as long as they kept their promises; they didn't need the "social issues" people anymore.

The Republicans have thus returned to where they feel most comfortable. Back in the 1880s William Graham Sumner used to say that the purpose of government is "to protect the property of men and the honor of women." Modern Republicans would hasten to add "the property of women" to this meager agenda, but the philosophy is the same. It sees the common good as the sum of individual private satisfactions. Its touchstone is the autonomous individual celebrated by John Locke in Of Civil Government (1690) : "free, equal, and independent" in the state of nature, the solitary savage enters society only to protect what is his—or hers. Here is a philosophy radically at odds with pro-life premises. If a woman has an absolute, unqualified right to her property, and if her body is part of her property, it follows that she has a right to evict her tenant whenever she wants and for whatever reason she pleases. This "despotic" concept of individual ownership is Republican, not Democratic. If Democrats are pro-choice for political reasons, Republicans are pro-choice in their hearts. Talk radio's greatest Republican cheerleader, Rush Limbaugh, has also been an outspoken pro-lifer, but even Limbaugh has been softening that part of his message lately—and small wonder. Here is Limbaugh castigating the environmental movement: "You know why these environmentalist wackos want you to give up your car? I'll tell you the real reason. They don't want you to have freedom of choice." There it is. Freedom of choice: the philosophical center of modern-day Republicanism.

Well, the reader asks impatiently, if Democrats are pro-choice politically and Republicans are pro-choice philosophically, what's the point of that pro-life "campaign statement"? Who is going to adopt it? Perhaps the good folks in some little splinter party, but who else? I answer as follows: American party politics is very tricky, at times seemingly unpredictable. Who, in the early sixties, would have dared to predict that the Democrats would become the abortion party? But there was a subtle logic at work. By 1964 it was clear that the Democrats were about to become the civil-rights party. The feminism of the sixties rode into the reform agenda on the back of civil rights (by the end of the decade "sexism" had entered most dictionaries as a counterpart to "racism"), and high on its agenda was not just the legalization but the moral legitimization of abortion. Nevertheless, it took a dozen years for the full shift to occur. I think that within the next dozen years the shift could be reversed. To explain why, I must take a long look backward, to the parties' respective positions in Lincoln's time.

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