Flashbacks May 2006

A Moral Wrong or a Fundamental Right?

Articles from the 1960s onward illuminate the many facets of the abortion debate

Lincoln, in contrast, was appalled by slavery, viewing it as “a cancer—or a ‘wen,’ as he called it…. If it ever metastasized, spreading into new territories, it could never be stopped.” Yet instead of proposing a nationwide ban on slavery, Lincoln first sought to contain the problem. He even went so far as to hint that he might be willing to protect slavery in the existing slave states, and at one point, he refused to allow one of his generals to emancipate slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. At the same time, he did everything in his power to keep slavery from taking hold in the newly incorporated lands of Kansas and Nebraska.

Based on this model, McKenna proposed a “Lincolnian position on abortion.” He urged political candidates to acknowledge that “abortion is morally wrong. It violates the very first of the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life.” However, he suggested that candidates follow this statement with a pledge: “If I am elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread.”

While liberal voters would be unlikely to see such a position as a “compromise,” the last presidential election revealed that a significant number of voters would like to see abortion rights limited, if not altogether eliminated. In January 2005, as George W. Bush began his second presidential term, the liberal writer Benjamin Wittes argued in an Atlantic piece that pro-choice activists should “surrender and let Roe die.”

The problem, Wittes explained, is that abortion rights do not in fact have clear roots in the Constitution. For that reason, the court ruling in Roe v. Wade stands on shaky judicial ground. “Consequently, a pro-lifer who complains that she never got her democratic say before abortion was legalized nationwide has a powerful grievance,” writes Wittes. “And there’s nothing quite like denying people a say in policy to energize their commitment to a position.”

Fortunately for pro-choicers, Wittes continues, the same process can work both ways. If Roe were to be overturned, liberals would be spurred to action. Wittes believes that enough Americans want abortion to be legal “at least some of the time” that, in a post-Roe scenario, state laws protecting abortion would spring up relatively quickly. Such laws, according to Wittes, would secure abortion rights more thoroughly and more permanently than a court ruling ever could.

Wittes concludes that “the costs of defending Roe have grown too high.” He encourages pro-choice Democrats to “let go of Roe” and mobilize their ranks, resuming the fight on legislative ground. “The insistence on judicial protection from a political fight that liberals have every reason to expect to win,” he concludes, “advertises pointedly how little they still believe in their ability to persuade.”

Jennie Rothenberg
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