Life Watch: In the Scale of Things

It was a dinner in Pasadena, with friends who were journalists and professors. In the face of their skepticism I was trying to explain again why I was encouraging the candidacies of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, despite the fact that the odds at the moment were running against them. Bauer had long ago cultivated the knack for speaking about abortion and gay rights in the public arena, where other public figures somehow couldn’t find the words or summon the nerve. Forbes has come late to the project, but come with seriousness. He is still not exactly where I would wish him to be, but he has found his public voice in talking about this question and he has come to a firm resolve that it must be talked about, even in settings in which his followers have not been exactly eager to hear that talk.

The case I made then was this: We have other, fine, pro-life candidates like Alan Keyes and Bob Smith; but if Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes show a capacity to draw a deeper vote, they offer a high chance of imparting speech to the mute. If they produce an effect, a certain resonance, in speaking about abortion, George W. Bush will not be able to remain silent and hold his own. He will have to discover, in his ensemble of skills, the capacity to bring forth sentences. He will have to have the writers who can add art to his nature, and the question then is whether he can frame the issue in a way that may be gentle and moderate, but substantive and summoning. The point is not to emit taglines (“I’m pro-life”), which foretell nothing about a path of policy. The offering may be modest, but it should put something on the table for the public business, the making of laws. It should plant premises, and offer enough of an argument to invite a conversation and the giving of reasons. If Bush is afraid of inviting that conversation or stepping into it, that would become evident instantly. I am not suggesting that his campaign would stumble decisively over his handling of this question. But we ought to recall that in 1972 Edmund Muskie seemed the surest bet for a presidential nomination—collecting endorsements from Democratic office-holders all over the landscape—until he came apart and wept in New Hampshire. That was early in the season for primaries, and it showed that the most formidable creations of the Establishment may suddenly dissolve if a candidate simply fizzles

One friend, however—a political writer—listening to all of this at dinner, offered a rival and more sobering account: Instead of strengthening the leverage of pro- lifers in the nomination, the candidacy of Bauer could virtually remove it as a factor. In the past, the pro-lifers managed to enjoy a critical standing because they could throw their weight behind candidates like Bob Dole, who were not identified with abortion as their leading issue. But if the pro-lifers are really drawn en masse to Gary Bauer, they might be, in effect, quarantined. They would not be available for recruitment by other candidates, so there would be no incentive for George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole to go after that vote, especially if it were not large enough in itself to bring victory. They could be free instead to make themselves ever more attractive to those sections of the party that are quite indifferent, or even hostile, on the abortion issue.

In the end—as the reasoning goes—Bush would have nothing to lose, for the pro-life vote will have nowhere else to go if he gets the nomination. And yet, not all of the political pros read the situation in that way. The formidable Coleen Parro is the head of the Eagle Forum in Texas, a leading figure in the pro- life wing of the Republican National Committee, and her own close observations point in another direction. She finds evidence to suggest that pro-lifers, but especially pro-life Democrats, come out when there is an explicit appeal on abortion and the “life issues.” When those issues remain unspoken, that is taken as a telling sign that they aren’t there, and the Democrats find it easier to stay with their own party. That sense of things might indeed account for part of the Catholic vote in the last presidential election.

In the meantime, George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole do not seem to be attentive to the telling signs they are emitting on their own as they back away from the issue. Bush has insisted that he cares deeply about abortion, but that it cannot be the “leading” issue in his campaign. Dole has remarked that we seem to be at a standoff: A constitutional amendment cannot be enacted, so there is little point in giving primacy to an issue that is so divisive. But the question needs to be asked earnestly: If abortion is not the “leading” issue, is it because it is intrinsically less important, or because audiences are reluctant to talk about it? My old friend Jeanne Kirkpatrick has endorsed Elizabeth Dole, in a party that has not shared her sense of the importance of intervening in Kosovo and the Balkans. In the face of that reserve or resistance in the party, she has not apparently advised Dole that the issue has ceased to be important. She has insisted over the years that the function of statesmen is to articulate the ends, and even induce people at times to talk about things they don’t find congenial. If Dole takes the line that abortion is not one of those things that she should talk about, I take that to mark her judgment that abortion is not, in the scale of things, all that important.

The same inference may hover over George W Bush, and so it may be worth recalling, in this vein, an experience of my own, just after the last presidential election, when I was invited to address a conservative group in North Carolina. It was a black-tie dinner, with an audience composed in the main of retired executives from business and the military. I “front-loaded” the address with talk about taxes, regulation, and the principled ground for resisting schemes such as targeted tax cuts. The audience was firmly with me, and I could feel the enthusiasm building. I then sought to make a gentle segue to the “other” concerns of a conservative party. I told the attendees that I had no idea what their dispositions were on the matter of abortion, and so I had no reason to expect that the people there would share my views, especially since I hadn’t offered any argument on the subject that night. I asked them if they would simply flex their imagination in this way: Could they put themselves in the place of some-one who looked out on the current scene and found good reason, in the evidence of embryology, to think that human lives were being taken in these abortions? He would look then upon a scene in which 1.3 million lives were taken each year in these surgeries. It would be comparable to a state of affairs in which 1.3 million members of a minority group could be lynched or killed without the restraint of the law and without the need even to render a justification. Now—as I asked the audience—if you did have that perspective and saw the landscape in that way, where do you think you would rate the issue of abortion in the scale of things? Would you place it just above the concern for interest rates? Just below the concern for unemployment? In fact, would you be in the least surprised to learn that anyone who thought 1.3 million humans were being killed each year would find it hard to regard that matter as peripheral or secondary? He would find it hard to regard it as anything other than central.

A palpable chill came over the audience. But for George W. Bush, it may be the chill of sobriety: If abortion cannot be the leading issue for him, is it because it is intrinsically less important? And if that is how he weighs it, is it because he really doubts that human lives are being destroyed? If so, on what ground could he plausibly profess to share the concerns of the pro-lifers, or to say of himself that he is “pro-life”? But if he really thinks that human lives are destroyed in these surgeries, then how could it be, in any reckoning, a secondary or peripheral matter? How could it not be the leading issue?

In his heart of hearts, Bush knows who is being destroyed in abortions, and if he were pressed, he might concede that the issue would indeed claim, in principle, a certain primacy. But like the Bush who preceded him, he may not be confident that he can find the right words. That problem for him is only deepened by the curious fact that the country, even now, remains highly reserved about abortion—yet even more reserved about the notion of talking about it. But many things are put in their proper scale, and much of the haze around this issue may be dispelled once he settles his mind on the question of whether there are real human beings getting dismembered here. If he bears no doubts on that point, it becomes clear that the test of his candidacy and his statesmanship is to find the words to frame the problem. They need not be menacing words, though he needs to reassure people that he is not dispossessing them of rights. They can be summoning words, for they could suggest how redeeming it would be for us if the law would put itself on the side of saving even a handful of lives. But they must also be sharp, substantive words that set the ground for the public business. That may require more art than most of us possess, and before I urge it so blithely on others, I should try it myself. What would a speech of that kind sound like? That—next time.


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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