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

It is, however, politically incorrect. Any liberal Democrat taking this stance would incur the wrath of the abortion lobbies. Protests within the party would mount, funding would dry up, connections with the party leadership would be severed, and there might be a primary challenge. Because politicians do not court martyrdom, the intimidatory power of these lobbies is formidable.

But no power lasts forever, and power grounded more in bullying than in reason is particularly vulnerable in our country. Within the liberal left, from which the Democrats draw their intellectual sustenance, there is increasing dissatisfaction with the absolutist dogma of "abortion rights." Nat Hentoff, a columnist in the left-liberal Village Voice, wonders why those who dwell so much on "rights" refuse to consider the bare possibility that unborn human beings may also have a few rights. Hentoff, who is a sort of libertarian liberal, sees a contradiction between abortion and individual rights, but the socialist writer Christopher Hitchens may actually be more in tune with the communitarian bent of post-New Deal liberalism in his critique of pro-choice philosophy. Hitchens caused an uproar among readers and staffers of The Nation in 1989 when he published an article in which he observed with approval that more and more of his colleagues were questioning whether "a fetus is `only' a growth in, or appendage to, the female body." While supporting abortion in some cases, he insisted that society has a vital interest in restricting it. What struck him as ironic, and totally indefensible, was the tendency of many leftists suddenly to become selfish individualists whenever the topic turned to abortion.

It is a pity that . . . the majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of "Me Decade" possessive individualism, an ideology that has more in common than it admits with the prehistoric right, which it claims to oppose but has in fact encouraged.

Hitchens's critique of the pro-choice position comes from his socialist premises, but even some liberal critics closer to the center have adopted a similar view. The Good Society (1991), by the sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates, reads like the campaign book of a decidedly liberal Democratic politician, someone who might challenge Bill Clinton from the left in 1996. The root of what is wrong in America, it says, is our "Lockean political culture," which emphasizes "the pursuit of individual affluence (the American dream) in a society with a most un-Lockean economy and government." When the authors get to the topic of abortion, they again see Lockeanism as the culprit: it has turned abortion into an "absolute right." In place of this kind of extreme individualism they suggest we consider the practices of twenty other Western democracies.

There is respect for the value of a woman's being able to choose parenthood rather than having it forced upon her, but society also has an interest in a woman's abortion decision. It is often required that she participate in counselling; she is encouraged to consider the significance of her decision, and she must offer substantial reasons why the potential life of the fetus must be sacrificed and why bearing a child would do her real harm.

Despite its use of the strange term "potential life" (a usage favored by Justice Blackmun) for a living fetus, Bellah's formulation expresses coherently what modern liberalism points toward but usually resists at the last minute: a responsible communitarian position on abortion. It is not the same as my campaign statement, but it is within debating distance, and setting the two statements side by side might bring together in civil debate reasonable people from both sides.

Of course, neither position would pass muster with NARAL, NOW, the ACLU, and other pro-choice absolutists. But at some point, I think, sooner rather than later, the grip of these lobbies will have to loosen. One lesson of last year's congressional elections is that the Democratic Party will suffer at the polls if it is perceived by the public as the voice of entrenched minority factions. For better or worse, the Republicans articulated a philosophy in 1994, while the Democrats, by and large, believed that all they had to do was appeal to "their" people. The party needs to rediscover the idea of a common good, and the abortion issue may be as suitable a place as any to start. But the Democrats will first have to break free of the abortion lobbies. That will be a formidable challenge, though not an impossible one. As the political scientist Jeffrey Berry has observed, one of the most startling features of modern American politics is how quickly political alliances can shift. National politics, Berry writes, no longer works by means of "subgovernments"—cozy two-way relationships between particular lobbyists and politicians. Today we live in a world of "issue networks," in which many lobbies vie for attention. Something like this, I believe, is starting to happen on women's issues. One of the fast-growing feminist groups in the country right now is Feminists for Life (FFL), which has offices nationwide and has recently moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C. Founded in the 1970s by former NOW members who had been expelled for their pro-life views, FFL supports almost the entire agenda of feminism—except "abortion rights." Citing the pro-life stands of the founders of American feminism, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they view themselves as reclaiming authentic feminism. Gay-rights groups, usually allied with the abortion lobbies, now include PLAGAL, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. In issue networks, Jeffrey Berry observes, alliances can be composed "of both old friends and strange bedfellows"; there are "no permanent allies and no permanent enemies." The new pragmatic alliances of gays and straights, religious believers and secularists, feminists and traditionalists, may soon be demanding seats at the Democratic table. It would not be surprising if they were welcomed as liberators by many Democrats who have been forced to endorse a Me Decade ideology at odds with the spirit of their party.

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

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

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In