Life Watch: The Moment for Bush

The summer has brought rumblings of a movement toward a third party on the part of pro-lifers, like Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who had struck off on a presidential campaign and found, as they say, no “traction” in the Republican party. But to move seriously to a third party is to separate pro-lifers from the one party that has a serious chance of bringing them to power. And yet, the feint toward a third party is not entirely irrational, for it casts up a serious warning for George W. Bush and provides the first real test of his prudence and statesmanship. He has it within his means to undercut, swiftly, any move to a third party among the pro-lifers. But the first thing he must recognize is that he himself may be the most serious cause of the crisis.

Bush has made the conventional moves to downplay the issue of abortion, but part of that arsenal of downplaying is to suggest that we need to change the culture before politics, or the “law,” can do anything about this problem. And yet, the problem emanates from the law: It began when the Supreme Court changed overnight the laws on abortion. Over 26 years, the teachings of Roe v. Wade have penetrated deeply in the “culture,” and they will not be easily dislodged. They can be altered only when the law itself begins to teach new lessons. Those laws may be quite modest in their reach, but a new Administration, teaching new lessons, must always have something on the table, something that compels reflection, precisely because it may be enacted into law. What seems to have flown by Mr. Bush is this: To the extent that he insists that the law is peripheral, that his administration will not take the lead in proposing new laws and keeping, at every turn, something on the table, it becomes quite plausible for pro-lifers to conclude that a Bush administration promises nothing but another round of Souters, O’Connors, and Kennedys. At that point, a useful lesson may indeed be administered by breaking up the coalition that would deliver Mr. Bush to an office he does not mean to use.

Hence, the task of statesmanship now, a task that Bush could accomplish with strokes that are remarkably simple. In the first place, he would send a subtle, but clear message if he selected, as his running mate, a strong pro-life figure. One name I have heard is that of Rick Santorum, the junior Senator from Pennsylvania: Northeastern, Catholic, pro-life—an appointment that adds balance and confirms the pro-life cast of the party. Another possibility, for sheer intellectual force and wit, would be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But in addition, it will become necessary to speak words here— words about abortion, the words that Bushes seem congenitally incapable of speaking. On the other hand, that very difficulty in speaking may form the beginning of a speech, for the Bushes here are hardly alone. They reflect the aversions of many people in the country who do not wish to talk about abortion—and rather wish that everyone else would stop. Bush could begin by registering his understanding of that mood and then move, perhaps in this way:

“I understand that this issue is hard to talk about—that it’s very divisive and sets off passions. And it sets off those passions because there is, on both sides, a sense of moral outrage, a sense of rights and wrongs. In that case there is nothing new here. We’ve always had divisions and moral passions inflamed when the law deals with matters of moral consequence, and matters of life and death are matters of moral consequence. We often think that the government does too much, but it is hard to imagine that government, or the law, can ever get out of the business of dealing with killing or homicide. After all, our law deals even with the killing of animals, and it casts its protection over endangered species. How, then, could it avoid dealing with the killing of small human beings, even in their earliest stages? There must always be a question of how far our laws will reach— just who is protected and who is left out of that protection.

“That question will always be with us, and until recently almost no one thought we were incapable of dealing with it in our public life. That question used to be addressed in our politics and legislatures, addressed by ordinary people, with ordinary language, trying to work out accommodations on this matter. None of the laws satisfied everyone; but they all reflected the sense that something serious was at stake in the taking of human life. And even if we did not get it quite right, it seemed to be understood at least that we could talk sensibly about the conditions under which abortions were justified or unjustified.

“Even today, ordinary people don’t find it so hard to talk about the rights and wrongs of abortion under different conditions. Even people who call themselves ‘pro-choice’ do not think that abortions are justified at all times, at all stages, for any reason at all. Most people don’t think that abortions should be used for the sake of convenience or for casual reasons. According to the surveys, most people think it would be wrong, for example, to have an abortion or end the life of a child, because that child might be deaf or blind.

“And so even people who call themselves pro-choice think that some abortions may be justly restricted. But what most people don’t seem to know—or they didn’t know until quite recently—is that, under the laws created by the courts, abortions can be ordered through the entire length of the pregnancy, for any reason at all. And yet, even when that point comes as startling news to people, they are often reluctant to change the law.

“Perhaps they sense that any move to change even a bad law may be unsettling. Rightly or wrongly, people fear that they are going to be dispossessed of something they have come to look upon as a ‘right.’ And so, even if the elves came in the middle of the night and Roe v. Wade disappeared from the books, nothing would be solved. For many people would be left with a sense of grievance. They wouldn’t understand the ground on which that ‘right to abortion’ might be qualified or scaled back.

“Before we can legislate again, even in the most moderate way, we will need a conversation. I would suggest that we begin that conversation at the places where even the people who are pro-choice agree that life can be protected. For even people who accept abortion are not willing to defend infanticide; and yet some prominent liberals, in their defense of abortion, have been making a case for infanticide. When we are dealing with a child at the point of birth, there is surely no dispute any longer as to whether we are dealing with a human being. Why don’t we begin there, with the clearest case? I propose that we begin simply by passing and signing into law the bill on partial-birth abortion; a bill that bars the grisly procedure of killing a child with most of his body outside the birth canal. We can also move to establish this clear point, which has been strangely denied by one federal judge: That we may protect the life of a child who survives an abortion. We can establish then these critical points: That the child is a real entity, whose injuries ‘count’ or matter; that the claim of the child to the protection of the law will not hinge on the question of whether anyone happens to ‘want’ her.

“We are dealing here with only a handful of cases each year, and we may be asked, why is it worth the effort? Well, in the first place, we would assure people that they are not being dispossessed of ‘rights’ they had come to expect. But in the meantime, we can establish again that we can deliberate about this question in our political life. We may move, then, step by step, and we will move only as far as we may convince people, in any case, that it would be justified to restrict abortions—say, that it is wrong to kill a child because she may be blind or disabled law. It may be secured, that is, beyond the power of majorities in legislatures— or courts—to take away.

“But how far this goes—how far we succeed in protecting people under the law—is a matter of conjecture. We may succeed in persuading each other to take only one or two modest steps right now. But what we can say at least is that we are directing ourselves to the right end. For the past 25 years, the law has protected the right of people to end the lives of unborn children, even without weighty reasons. And the result has been about 1.3 million abortions each year. We would now ask moderate people of all parties: What harm would be done if the law set itself now on the side of saving, from that vast multitude, a handful of lives? Why can’t we come together at least in saving some of those lives, and perhaps adding just a bit more with each step and each year? As Abraham Lincoln said, on another occasion, dealing with another crisis that divided our people, ‘The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”‘

Now, would that kind of a speech really be so difficult for a Republican candidate to deliver?


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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