Life Watch: Practical Alternatives to Abortion May Be Hazardous

“Summoning his passion, nearly foaming with conviction, straining his temples with anger … he professed his moderation. And he swore an eternal enmity to those people, swollen with surety, who thought they knew the ‘truth.’” That description could have served well over the last 30 years to describe colleagues I have known in Amherst and in other parts of the American academy. But it rings with a deeper aptness today when it is applied to the so-called Republican moderates. A mark of their enduring obtuseness, the trait that stamps them as Bertie Woosters without the wit or the charm, is that they seem so remarkably blind to their own compulsions. Only that style may explain, I think, Mr. Brooks Firestone, scion of an established Republican family in California, as he made one more attempt to take his party back from those pro-lifers who had infiltrated its ranks. He supported a move to replace the head of the state party with a candidate determined to rid the party of this vexing issue of abortion and align the character of the party with this “pro-choice” state. At the same time, this leadership, newly installed, would take it as part of its mission to rescue the Republican Party in the nation at large: With California, as ever, in the vanguard, there would be a move at the next national convention to delete, from the platform of the party, the commitment to protect the lives of children in the womb and secure that protection in the basic law of the Constitution.

But once again, the plan never made it through the first stage. The pro-life forces showed their continuing strength within the party and beat back this counterrevolution. And of course, nothing seemed to confirm so deeply to the partisans of abortion the utter fanaticism of the pro-lifers or their fixation on this “single issue.” But nicely hidden from view was the question: Who had decided to stage a showdown in the party, with abortion as the central issue? The Republican platform on abortion, established and defended with vast effort, was dismissed as mere verbiage without consequence by Bob Dole when he finally secured the presidential nomination. In other words, the existence of that platform did not impart to the candidate the conviction to press the issue or the language he would need to convey an understanding to others. Yet, that language in the platform stands there. And while it stands, it seems to speak, and it inspires the most intense hostility among the people who have come to reject its principles and despise its teaching. But as Lincoln would say, that part of the platform remains as one hard nut that its opponents need to crack, and they seem impelled by a force nearly demonic to try their hand at it.

The so-called moderates condemn the party for caring overly much about these moral questions, but as they do, they keep treating this issue of abortion as the most central and decisive, the issue paramount among all others. And yet, with each defeat they manage to persuade themselves of the unabating fanaticism of their opponents. What seems to elude their recognition is just how deeply they have confirmed the judgment of their own adversaries: At every turn they insist that the party cannot stand on this issue, that the issue must be peripheral or unimportant, and at every turn they confirm the sense that, for them, there is nothing more important to talk about.

But the obtuseness that marks this position becomes one of those curious “facts,” or states of affairs, that managers of the party seem compelled to deal with as prudent men and women. They are forced to deal with the world as it is, a world that contains Republican witlessness as well as conviction. But schemes designed to placate this obtuseness of the moderates are compelled in turn to mimic their obtuseness. And so, what we are likely to hear is that we can transcend these differences by agreeing on certain “practical” alternatives to abortion. The most notable of those measures is that we may make more of an exertion at the federal level to make adoption more attractive and bring down the barriers that impede the placement of children.

No one could gainsay that the lives saved through these measures would be worth saving, or claim a policy that saves lives—even a handful of lives—could hardly be regarded as anything but a good. Still, we have to understand that nothing in these policies would challenge any premise involved in the “right to abortion.” That “right” would be conceded—and all of the premises standing behind that right would be left unchallenged. People would simply be exhorted to use their “choice” in favor of the child. But no premise would be planted to suggest that the life of the child has any intrinsic dignity or importance that the rest of us would be obliged to respect.

The problem may be cast then in even stronger terms. Let us sup-pose that a certain program of counseling worked, wondrously, to persuade about 90 percent of the women contemplating abortion to bring the child to term and put the child into the hands of adoptive parents. The lives saved would be on a vast scale, and again there is no denying the deep good of saving those lives. And yet, nothing in these arrangements would disturb the understanding, becoming settled among the educated in this country, that people have a right to take life as it suits their interests. Whether people decided to acknowledge or respect the life of the child would be a matter that pivoted entirely on their own feelings and on the estimate of their own needs. Nothing in the policy would suggest that there is any law beyond our own needs that commands respect; neither would there be the sense of anything in the child that stirred our awe. In fact, the whole scheme would preserve the most radical premise that has been absorbed in the “right” to an abortion—namely, that we have a sovereign right to decide just who is a human being as it suits our interests.

If understandings of that kind are left in place, or even confirmed, nothing in these “practical” measures would touch in any way the evil that stands at the core of abortion. Even if many lives were saved, the souls of the American people would still be formed around the premises that shaped the right to abortion and fostered now the culture, or the climate of opinion, that sustains that right. We might be pleased with the saving of lives, but we could hardly find any consolation in the principles that would now work to rescue those lives as so many gifts, cast up by chance. Reverence for the life of the child would not arise from any sense of duty planted deeply in the character of our people and nourished in our laws.

The policy of “practical measures” will be offered in the name of pragmatism or in the cause of softening conflict, but it should be clear now that it would be anything but a policy of “moderation.” It would bridge no division; it would heal no wound. As G. K. Chesterton might say, it would offer an example of the utter madness, or fanaticism, of the people pretending to moderation. It would be a false moderation because it would try to achieve its peace through moral obtuseness— by turning away from any serious question of principle that is engaged in the taking of life.

In contrast, there is another course of moderation that might have a more pronounced effect, even though it might save, at first, only a handful of lives. And that is the policy that would at least plant the principles in the law: that the simple point that the child, at the point of birth, has standing as a human life; that his injuries “count”; that he may be protected by the law; and that Congress may lay its hands on this subject in marking the limits to any right to abortion. I think we will find that any proposals, in the next several months, promising to do more than this, while not doing at least this, will end up doing far less than this, and count as nothing. But on the other hand, even a bumbling Republican administration that plants these premises in the law will have planted, at least, something that a later administration, with more wit or nerve, can build upon. Some of us continue to think that these modest steps, once taken, will beget others, and set off a dynamic of their own. And even a Republican administration with its share of upper-class twits may look out one day and recognize that it built better than it knew.


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.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.