Lifewatch: Tales from an Election Year

It was said of Woody Allen’s neighborhood near Coney Island that Himmler could be elected to Congress from that district if he ran as a Democrat. In this electoral season, pro-lifers have faced a scaled-down version of this problem, as they have been compelled to incorporate, in their judgments, the strategic place of the political parties. Parties always add a bit of alchemy and complication to the landscape of choices, and in this current season, the calculations could keep pro-lifers up, reckoning and re-reckoning, late into the night. Consider how the matter presented itself in my own State, the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, in a contest for the U.S Senate. By the time this column appears, the outcome will be known. But it is worth preserving, in the ledgers of our experience, the nature of the problem that was posed to us, for we shall see it again.

The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Edward Kennedy, could inspire no perplexities among the pro-lifers. He has been the most persistent, most resourceful, most determined adversary of the pro-life movement. On top of everything else, he and his family have been given an almost iconic presence among Catholics. Whether they seek the office or not, they are taken as visible and authoritative reflections of the Catholic life. When Kennedys divorce and remarry, when they proclaim the rightness of abortion, they cannot help but teach, and what they teach, as the saying goes, is that “You can be a good Catholic and still favor the right to an abortion.” That Kennedy, as a public man, may make mistakes in judgment, is one thing, but that he also misinstructs Catholics about the teachings of their own Church is an entirely separate, added, grievous wrong, which may rightly be charged to him. In another day, with a sensibility more finely tuned, this was referred to, in a phrase, as “giving scandal.”

But that is the good news. The melancholy news for the pro-lifers was that the Republican party cast up, as a candidate, a man who furnished no crisp alternative to Kennedy on the issues of moral consequence: Mitt Romney, a young businessman in his 40s, Mormon, affable, engaging, square-jawed, the good-looking offshoot of a political family, with a photogenic wife and a bevy of winsome children. He can discourse on taxes and regulation, about incentives and jobs, all very upbeat. Except for one thing. There appears to be something absent from his makeup. He brings to mind the figure of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited: He has managed to cut a splendid figure and advance in life without being burdened by anything that resembles, even faintly, a moral reflex. His understanding of a “moral” judgment he managed to convey in explaining his position on abortion. He bears, personally, some aversion to the surgery — for reasons remaining mysterious and inarticulable — and he would not order up one of those surgeries for his own family. But it is the quality of these beliefs, he explained, that we would not impose them on anyone else. And yet, that property of a moral conviction curiously disappears when the subject turns to “gay rights,” which he favors most emphatically. On that matter, apparently, he is willing to pronounce on the things that are not only right or wrong for himself, but right or wrong for others as well. And with that conviction, there is no hesitation about using the law to impose this sense of “rights” on private employers and landlords.

For pro-lifers, the choice between Kennedy and Romney was the choice between the noxious and the obnoxious. To put Romney in the Senate would provide no increment of strength for the pro-life side. But it would have the effect of enlarging the presence of the “pro-choice” contingent within the Republican caucus. And since Romney fancied himself as part of a new generation of free-market conservatives, he was not likely to fall into a decorous lassitude on the matter of abortion. He was more likely to build his pro-choice slogans into a doctrine for a new Republicanism, which would insist now, with a renewed conviction, that moral questions, like abortion and euthanasia, are really outside the main business of politics. At the Republican Convention in 1996, a pro-abortion Romney would be added to a contingent that includes Christine Whitman (the governor of New Jersey), Pete Wilson (the governor of California), and William Weld (the governor of Massachusetts). The strengthening of this faction could only undermine the cohesion of the Republicans as a pro-life party, a character that has been firming up in the party since 1980. Romney might add to the Republican delegation in the Senate, but in a curious way he could help to weaken the party, by undercutting its coherence and sense of purpose. If Massachusetts is to have then, in the Senate, a full-throated partisan of abortion, there are good reasons to have that voice merged in the chorus of the current party of abortion.

And yet . . . there is the alchemy of party. Through the extended commitments of a party, a politician may be recruited to the support of causes that he would never favor on his own, when left to his own interests. There were few Senators as dense or ineducable on the matter of abortion as the former Senator (and soon to be former Governor) from Connecticut, Lowell Weicker. But while Lowell Weicker was in the Senate, he represented a vote to sustain a Republican majority in the control of that body between 1981 and 1987. He was a vote then to keep a Republican majority in control of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. In the same way, Mitt Romney would be a vote to remove that doctor of laws, Chairman Biden, and to install Orrin Hatch as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. We must recall in this respect that Robert Bork’s nomination to the Court became a live prospect for blocking precisely because the Republicans had lost control of the Senate, and the Judiciary Committee in 1986. Even if they had voted against Bork, a Lowell Weicker or a Mitt Romney in the Senate would have helped to put in place the structure that would have made it harder to sabotage the nomination of Bork. If Bork had been confirmed, instead of Justice Kennedy, we now know that he would have been a vote to overrule Roe v. Wade in 1989. And if not in 1989, then surely in 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for by that time, Bork, Scalia, Rehnquist, and White would have been joined by Clarence Thomas.

And so, by the last week in October, the politically-tuned pro-lifer in Massachusetts was balancing information of this kind: The report from friends in the Senate Republican campaign committee was that the Republicans were likely to pick up nine seats in the Senate, which would be enough to regain control. In that event, no need to vote for Romney. But then, by the end of the week, reports from Minnesota suggested that the Republican candidate was faltering, raising the prospect that the Democrats might hold the Senate by the slimmest margin. Under that contingency, it might be necessary to close the eyes, bite the lip, and pull the lever for Romney. But by this time, Romney, once wafted in the polls, was beginning to stage the most impressive descent (in part — but only in part — because pro-lifers had begun to make calculations of this kind). Still, Romney may come back, if a Republican wave truly runs through the country, lifting all boats, including those containing the undeserving rich. There are pro-lifers who will go into the voting booths, throw off all calculations, and pull the lever against Kennedy with an enthusiasm that may rip the arm off the machine. And they may do it without bothering to notice whether the other name on the ballot happened to be Romney or Mortimer Snerd.

In the past two years, the pro-lifers have shown a certain resilience in making accommodations even with pro-choice Republicans, like Paul Coverdell (GA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX). But Coverdell and Hutchison were willing to make some effort to seek out a common ground: If they thought that abortion was a “private choice,” they were at least willing to resist any scheme to support abortions with public funds, and promote abortions, through public law, as a public good. As the Republicans survey their gains after this election, and estimate their prospects, they would be wise to consider, soberly, the problem raised by the fanaticism, by the anti-religious zeal, of the so-called “traditional” Republicans. They might contrast that brittleness with the large nature, and moderation, of the pro-life Republicans. The pro-lifers can support property rights and a free market because they understand the moral premises of a free economy. They understand just why it is so grave to strip people of their savings or their income for the most arbitrary reasons. But if it is wrong to deprive people of their rights of property, it must be even more deeply wrong to deprive people of their very standing as rights-bearing persons simply by calling them by another name (“slaves,” “fetuses”) and removing them, for the most arbitrary reasons, from the class of beings who may be protected by the law. What the pro- lifers cannot comprehend is how the so-called free market Republicans can be so blind to the moral ground of the rights they profess to love as they love their own lives.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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