Don’t Tread on (My Womb)

These days of Inside Catholic’s nascence find us debating the merits of political parties and ideologies in light of both Catholic teaching and historical tradition. Which party, which corresponding set of philosophies, is the one to which good Catholics ought to hitch their wagon? Does such a party even exist?

I don’t want to give my own answer here. But I would like to offer a brief analysis of a phenomenon that I think bears on the debate.

In my examination of five typical pro-abortion arguments in the April 2004 issue of crisis I made only a passing reference to a sixth: what I called the "libertarian" angle. Today I regret giving it short shrift, for it has become the pre-eminent pro-abortion strategy; soon, perhaps, it will be the only one. And I believe it is part of a larger political phenomenon that spells serious trouble for social conservatives, and introduces yet another variable for the discerning Catholic voter to calculate.

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The line may seem at first familiar. When Rudy Giuliani told reporters in May, "I think abortion is wrong, but I think there should be a choice," it didn’t sound like anything new. From Cuomo to Clinton, this "personally opposed, but" approach has provided an aegis for many pro-abort politicians wishing to tap a Middle America that has no enthusiasm for baby-killing.

But note the twist. Giuliani strikes out from comfortable territory by justifying the "but" not (as Cuomo and many others have done) by making a show of subordinating his religious convictions to the ostensible popular will, but rather with an appeal to individual autonomy, bald enough to make a Bircher blush. He put it neatly in a speech at a NARAL luncheon, where he claimed that the pro-abortion position is in fact most consistent with conservative principles, since it gives women the power to "make their own choices, rather than the government dictating those choices" (emphasis mine).

Expect abortion defenders in both parties to pick up on this strategy of co-opting conservative-sounding language. After all, what else could they do? The sonogram killed the "blob of tissue" canard. Clinical and anecdotal evidence have eroded the folly that abortion is no more traumatic for women than rhinoplasty. Want to debate when life begins? The abortionists have largely retreated from that field, leaving pro-lifers alone with their correct and useless arguments.

Filling the rhetorical vacuum with "libertarian" slogans, though, takes the emphasis off the no-win subject of abortion in se and turns our attention to the can’t-lose subject of Trying to Get The Man Off Our Backs. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

It also cleverly seizes on a waxing political mood. Old-school statism finds ever-fewer takers these days: from Golden State to Bay State, even liberal voters seem to be in a mood for tighter budgets and smaller government. Solid majorities favor the death penalty, border control, and broader gun rights. A divisive war has re-kindled the old isolationist spirit nationwide. But don’t chalk up such folks in the GOP column: many of these same voters also reflexively despise the social Right, and fret over the theocrats’ designs on their wombs, genitals, and science textbooks.

It’s no surprise, then, that thrifty and independent-minded New Hampshire, long a conservative island in the Northeast’s blue sea, recently repealed its parental notification law but passed legislation granting civil unions to same-sex couples — with the approval of the same hardy old Yankees who would go to the mattresses against a seatbelt law or an income tax. In so doing, the state’s new Democratic majority and its liberal Republican fellow-travelers pulled off a nifty trick: extending the Live Free or Die ethos to embrace abortion and gay marriage.

Social liberals are likewise targeting western states. Last year, once reliably Republican Arizona became the first state to defeat a Defense of Marriage referendum. When pro-life Pete Coors was defeated in the 2004 Colorado senatorial race, some liberal observers were moved to crow that the state had turned "purple," becoming the model of a fiscally conservative, socially liberal state whose rugged individualism embraces abortion for the same reason it rejects gun bans. (The site for the 2008 Democratic National Convention? Denver.)

The political left is holding out an oar, and these "purple" voters, cast adrift by a mainstream GOP gone soft and profligate, and by conservatism’s increasingly Southern, evangelical flavor, are (unsurprisingly) reaching for it. Another generation removed both from the withering mores of mainstream religion and the dotty-but-sincere ideals of Boomer humanism, their outlook is shrewd, secular, individualistic, permissive, and suspicious. (Embracing neither Marx nor Jesus but, as it were, Rand.) Their influence has permanently colored the national discourse on abortion and other social issues, and it threatens to drive another wedge — if not a stake — into the ever-fragile alliance between social conservatives and the Republican Party.


Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor of Sophia Institute Press and a columnist with InsideCatholic.com.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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