When asked about the political plight of pro-life Democrats, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg responded with what I call the “pro-choice fallacy.” According to Mr. Buttigieg, “I know that the difference of opinion that you and I have is one that we have come by honestly, and the best I can offer… is that if we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line, and in my view it’s the woman who’s faced with that decision.”
This position is a false compromise. Like most pro-choice language, it plays on an equivocation between morality and preference. Because we can’t agree on the underlying moral principles (the argument suggests), we should let individuals choose the option they think best suits their particular life situation. The pro-choice fallacy therefore endorses something like the following moral principle: if A and B disagree on whether X is moral or immoral, then X should be permitted. We should let the person faced with the choice of X-ing decide whether or not to X.
Such a view cannot be justified in nearly any other moral context. The people of Nazi Germany obviously disagreed about whether Jews have a right to life. But surely permitting the act in question—killing European Jews—was an intolerable injustice. Why, then, does Mr. Buttigieg ask us to be indifferent to unborn children’s right to life?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
What’s more, a version of the pro-choice fallacy has already been rejected within American public policy, as seen in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The prevailing notion at the time was to let American territories decide on the question of slavery before becoming states. After all, slavery was a fraught moral question. And defenders of the “peculiar institution” of slavery had devised pseudo-Constitutional arguments that prevented the federal government from sufficiently regulating or abolishing the practice. Should we not simply let those faced with the moral question—that is, the people of the territories—decide whether or not to endorse slavery?
Lincoln thoroughly rejected the pro-choice fallacy. He recognized that abolishing the institution of slavery would not be an easy task, and he admitted that a slaveholder’s decision to stop holding slaves would be onerous. It would require courage. Yet he didn’t waiver on his moral stance. The political and social difficulties surrounding slavery were irrelevant to the heart of the issue: “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Lincoln, “the negro… is as much entitled to these as the white man.”
True, his opponents allowed for states and territories to reject slavery. But this pro-choice argument skews morality and deadens the conscience. To again quote Lincoln, when a person defending popular sovereignty
invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. When he says he cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up—that it is a sacred right of self-government—he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the lover of liberty in this American people.
We would be hard-pressed to find anyone that disagrees with Lincoln today. But when the same suspect principles he rejected are applied to abortion, they enjoy broad appeal. Why is this?
All popular-sovereignty arguments implicitly deny that black Americans have the same right as their white counterparts to enjoy the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness described in the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, all pro-choice arguments, despite their compromising language, necessarily reject an unborn child’s right to life.
In other words, hidden in the pro-choice advocate’s squishy moral stance is a bold moral principle with which many people disagree. And this is not the kind of disagreement that pro-choice defenders such as Buttigieg anticipate. If we are to accept his argument—that disagreement promotes permissiveness—we must agree to the underlying implication. That is, we must accept that an unborn child’s life can, in principle, be forfeit simply because of the difficulties it would bring.
This we cannot allow ourselves to do. Like Lincoln, we should reject the language of false compromise and see the pro-choice argument for what it is: a denial that the value and dignity of human life exist independently of a state’s vote or an individual’s choice.