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
Pro-Life Democrats

In the 1850s it was not the Republicans but the Democrats who were the champions of unbridled individualism. As heirs of Andrew Jackson's entrepreneurialism—and ultimately of Jefferson's distrust of "energetic government"—the Democrats were wary not only of national action but also of any concept of the common good that threatened individual or local autonomy. It was the Republicans, heirs of Whig nationalism and New England transcendentalism, who succeeded—under Abraham Lincoln's tutelage—in constructing a coherent philosophy of national reform. In The Lincoln Persuasion (1993), a brilliant, posthumously published study of Lincoln's political thought, the political scientist J. David Greenstone traced the roots of that thought to the communitarian "covenant theology" of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Lincoln combined this theology, with its emphasis on public duty and public purpose, with the nationalism and institutionalism of Henry Clay and other leading Whigs, arriving at a position of "political humanitarianism." Lincoln's synthesis, Greenstone noted, did not deny the importance of individual development, but it did assert that "the improvement of individual and society were almost inseparably joined." Combining moral commitment with political realism, Lincoln arrived at a concept of the public good that resonated deeply among northerners, especially those large segments steeped in the culture of New England. At the time of the Civil War, then, the Democratic and Republican parties were divided not only on the slavery question but also on the larger philosophical question of national responsibility. The Democrats adopted a position of economic and moral laissez-faire, while the Republicans insisted that on certain questions the nation had to do more than formulate procedural rules; it had to make moral judgments and act on them.

This philosophical alignment, persisting through the Civil War and Reconstruction, was blurred during the Gilded Age. Then, over the course of the next forty years, something surprising happened: the parties reversed positions. Populist Democrats in the 1890s weakened their party's attachment to laissez-faire, and after "progressive" Republicans (whose model was Lincoln) failed to take over their party in 1912, many started moving toward the Democrats. Woodrow Wilson welcomed them—and so, twenty years later, did Franklin Roosevelt. By 1936 it was the Democrats who were sounding the Lincolnian themes of national purpose and government responsibility, while the Republicans had become the champions of the autonomous individual. Since then both parties have veered and tacked, sometimes partly embracing each other's doctrines, but today the congressional parties stand as far apart as they were at the height of the New Deal. President Clinton may have muddied the waters with his "me, too, but more moderately" response to Republican retrenchment, but in Congress the programmatic differences between the parties are spelled out almost daily in party-line votes reminiscent of the late 1930s. Now as then, Republicans emphasize the role of government as a neutral rule maker that encourages private initiative and protects its fruits. Now as then, Democrats emphasize the role of government as a moral leader that seeks to realize public goals unrealizable in the private sphere.

If this analysis is correct, it follows that the proper philosophical home for pro-lifers right now is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. To test this, go back to that "campaign statement" I sketched earlier and make one simple change: substitute the word "racism" for abortion. Without much editing the statement would be instantly recognizable as the speech of a liberal Democrat. Democrats know that racism, like abortion, cannot be abolished by governmental fiat. But they also know that it is wrong to subsidize racist teachings publicly or to tolerate racist speech in public institutions or to permit racist practices in large-scale "private" enterprises. Democrats also insist that government has a duty to take the lead in condemning racism and educating our youth about its dangers. In other words, the same formula—grudgingly tolerate, restrict, discourage—that I have applied to abortion is what liberal Democrats have been using to combat racism over the past generation. With abortion, as with racism, we are targeting a practice that is recognized as "wrong" (Hillary Clinton) and "a bad thing" (Kate Michelman). With abortion, as with racism, we are conceding the practical impossibility of outlawing the evil itself but pledging the government's best efforts to make it "rare" (Bill Clinton et al.). When it comes to philosophical coherence, therefore, nothing prevents Democrats from adopting my abortion position. Indeed, there is very good reason to adopt it.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In