Life Watch: After Daschle, After Newt

After Daschle—what? The question was being posed after the gambit made by Senator Thomas Daschle in May, offering an alternative to the bill on partial-birth abortions. [“Lifewatch,” July/August, 1997] Had Daschle simply been engaged in a crafty, stylish maneuver to derail a pro-life bill that was amassing, in the Congress, an unprecedented level of support? Or did the move, on the part of Daschle and the Democrats, mark a breakthrough?

But just as we were trying to summon our powers of calculation to ponder that problem, the Republican leadership in the House managed to unsettle all calculations, and throw off all readings of the political landscape, by staging its own version of a midlife crisis. First, it succumbed to Mr. Clinton on the so-called “budget deal.” The Republicans extracted a bit of loose change in tax cuts, but everything was arranged within the framework of Clinton, with his premises and principles. So spooked, apparently, by Mr. Clinton are the leaders of the House that they are reconciled to accepting the few scraps he is willing to leave them, so long as they may take some credit for advancing toward a balanced budget. And so, the Republican leaders sought to put the best face on things by celebrating themselves in a manner that was not exactly worthy of grownups. They seemed to fall into a terminal state of self-congratulation; but while in that state, some of the leaders feinted—and then fainted—at an attempt to bring about a coup and displace Newt Gingrich. When the dust had cleared, Gingrich announced that he was replacing Representative Bill Paxon, as his director of policy planning, with Representative James Greenwood of Pennsylvania. Greenwood has been styled by the press as a moderate on the social issues—which means that he is fiercely pro-abortion. In fact, he holds the curious distinction of being one of only a handful of Republicans who did not vote for the ban on partial-birth abortions. At many points over the last few years, the leadership or the Speaker’s office have hampered pro-lifers like Chris Smith of New Jersey, and tilted toward the side of the “pro-choicers” in the party. And this, even though Dick Armey and Tom DeLay have been dependable supporters of the pro-life position. What else then could the elevation of Greenwood have been except an unambiguous signal from Newt Gingrich: Namely, that there would be more of the same from the Speaker’s office, only worse.

Still, this is the Republican leadership that brought forth the bill on partial-birth abortions. That is a reflection of a party in the House that remains dominantly pro-life. Of course, the bill passed by the Congress commanded support among Democrats as well as Republicans. But the sober fact is that the bill on partial-birth abortions would not have made it to the floor in a Congress organized by the Democrats. It required a Committee on the Judiciary, under the leadership of Henry Hyde and Charles Canady, to bring forth that bill. But Hyde was placed in his position by the leadership in the House, which is itself sustained by a party containing the Greenwoods and the Marge Roukemas, as well as the Hydes and Canadys. Once again, it is the alchemy of political parties.

It would appear, from the polls, that Gingrich made an apt calculation: If he could not attain the real ends of his party, at least the budget played well enough for him to hold that Republican majority in the House. And while it holds, it becomes plausible to ask again: After Daschle—what? What is the next move?

Senator Daschle had proposed to ban all abortions after the point of viability—but with enough exceptions and loopholes as to make the pro-lifers back away with a proper wariness. Yet, let us assume that we may pursue the conversation that was begun with this move by Daschle. Even people who call themselves “pro-choice” have been deeply uneasy over abortions performed late in the pregnancy, and it is entirely possible that we could settle on a measure that would bar abortions after “viability.” But that would still leave unaffected about 90 percent of the abortions that are performed each year. Where then does the conversation move?

There is an obvious temptation to extend the restrictions back in time, to an earlier stage of the pregnancy. But pro-lifers have long been averse to any tendency to approach the problem in that way. To speak of trimesters, or months of pregnancy, runs the risk of confirming the superstition implicit in this language: Namely, that a child is somehow less of a human being, less deserving of the protections of law, in the earlier weeks of life. It may be better to break away entirely from the framework of weeks and months and recast the problem.

For example, the polls have shown that a majority of people in the country think that abortions would not be justified in cases in which the child might be blind or afflicted with Down’s syndrome. And it seems to have come as a surprise to some liberal writers that the sentiment of the public on this question seems entirely indifferent to the stage of the pregnancy or the age of the child. It would appear that people have reasoned roughly in this way: They do not regard blindness or Down’s syndrome as conditions that justify the taking of life of people outside the womb—at any age. And so, the gradations seem to make as little difference for them in principle for the child inside the womb.

The concern for the blind, or for people with Down’s syndrome, does not coincide with any division between liberals or conservatives. But liberals have been even more willing over the years to enlarge the responsibilities of the government in offering aid to people afflicted with disabilities. And in the Daschle bill, had the liberals not signed on to the proposition that the law may protect children in the womb? If so, could they really do a reverse now and claim that the law protects children afflicted with blindness or Down’s syndrome—but somehow not these children?

But once the question is opened in this way, many other plausible concerns may quickly follow: The issue of sex-selection has been raised often in the legislatures of the states, and it would readily arise here as well. And yet, the feminists have preserved a remarkable detachment on this issue, even though the killings have pivoted on the gender of the child. For them, the wrong has been overborne by an interest, ever more paramount, in preserving, unimpaired, the right to abortion. But if abortions become subject to restriction, could politicians really afford to neglect, in this field, the cause of their favorite victims? Could they now profess an indifference to the forms of discrimination they are quick to denounce in every other field? In fact, there is ample reason to hope that the familiar rules of politics will come into play. We may even set off a benign bidding war, as politicians seek to press again their pet causes and court their favorite victims.

The pro-life movement might prod things along in a gentle way, but for the most part it could be quite useful if the pro-lifers were to hold back for a while and let this process unfold. Let the string be played out as far as it might go, for with each small step, people have the chance to confirm yet again, in one case after another, that judgments can be cast, and that abortions may rightly be restricted. At a certain point, people with a bit of natural wit may begin to discover a pattern at work. Or they may notice that there is, behind their series of ad hoc judgments, some deeper principles, that would extend far more broadly, and protect far more children than they had managed yet to encompass in the categories, and slots, of the statutes they had passed.

Not the least to be reckoned in all of this is the medical profession. For years, doctors and hospitals have been receding from the practice of abortion, as a practice that is—yes, legal, but something a bit tacky, something less than respectable. My own hunch has been that if the laws begin to teach again, even in a gentle way, that there is something wrong about abortion, the doctors themselves would begin to amplify that resistance put up by the law. In this respect, there was a telling break when the American Medical Association finally came out against partial-birth abortions. That move marked a willingness on the part of doctors to detach themselves from the liberal haze of our public discourse and finally speak, on the question of abortion, the plain truths that doctors are in a position to speak. If the law began to cast up inhibitions once again, the physicians might take those new barriers as an occasion to turn to their patients and say, “Really, I must tell you what you sense yourself: that you are carrying a child. On that, there is no mystery. It will not turn into a child or a human being later. You should get clear then that you would be asking a doctor to destroy a child—and you ought to ask yourself whether you really have the reasons to do that.”

But at a certain point, after matters have unfolded, the moment would arise finally to throw the long pass and put the question to Senator Daschle himself. He was, after all, raised a Catholic, and he must know that the truth of this matter runs well beyond those constricted, artificial formulas that he has been willing to offer up, as a patchwork for holding together his team of liberal Democrats. In a confiding, friendly way, one who has his ear may say, “Now Senator, you don’t really think that the being in the womb undergoes a change of species from one trimester to the next? Then what are we talking about?” And at that moment, as distant as a village long ago in Bethany, or as near as the touch of one who finally understands, we may be at the threshold of a breakthrough even deeper yet.


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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