Life Watch: The Abasement of the Morellas

It was another tumultuous day in the House of Representatives on September 30, as the Committee on the Judiciary brought to the floor the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (see “Congressman Graham Springs a Bill,” October 1999). It was tumultuous because the exertion evidently strained the collective wit of the Democrats in the House.

Just how straining these experiences could be was a matter that broke in on me quite forcibly three years ago during a comparable moment, when the House was called on to debate and vote on the Defense of Marriage Act. I had testified on that bill, and when I saw the engagement on the floor of the House, I saw something I had not seen over 30 years of sampling the debates in Congress. For it appeared now that the aisle separating the parties marked off the most embarrassing barrier of intellect: On the one side, people were actually prepared for a discussion of the substance of the bill and the conflicting decisions of the courts. On the other side, people were clearly unprepared for any substantive discussion, but even beyond that, it seemed to strain their wit simply to preserve their focus on the matter at hand.

At one telling moment, Congressman James Moran (D-Va.) struck postures of high indignation, and Henry Hyde, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pointed out to him that the case of Romer v. Evans, just decided by the Supreme Court, essentially “vitiated” everything Moran had just said. Moran mumbled something to the effect that perhaps he read that case differently. Faced with a case of fakery, Hyde made an uncustomary gesture and confronted Moran directly: “Are you familiar with the case?” he asked. Moran mumbled again, now even less distinctly, and relinquished the floor.

The whole thing rather resembled that radio program of my youth, It Pays to Be Ignorant. The show was a kind of satire of programs like Information Please, which showcased genuine wits and people of odd genius, such as Oscar Levant. It Pays to Be Ignorant offered a panel of dunces who bore names like Lulu McConnell. The moderator would throw out the easiest question (e.g., “What appliance is used to keep food refrigerated?”), and the panel would then go off on tangents, expressing their passions of the moment, while the panel as a whole lost track of the question. To recall McConnell and her colleagues is the best preparation for watching the likes of Maxine Waters, Robert Wexler, and Mel Watt as they try to pool their IQ points and take a flying stab at addressing a matter of moral consequence.

At the end of the day, the bill passed, 247-172. Most Republicans voted for it, most Democrats against. What is most disturbing is to see Catholics, bearing names like Morella and DeLauro, showing outrage at a bill that would cast the protections of the law on unborn children. For they understood, rightly, that the bill would challenge, at the root, what they called “the woman’s right to choose [abortion].” Nothing, apparently, in their moral forming as Catholics had given them the least pause in declaring this right to choose as a moral principle now preeminent—a principle that overrides, for them, even the slightest respect for the life of that unborn child.

Congressman Lindsey Graham introduced a bill that took matters again to the root, and as members of Congress staged their resistance, they were compelled to make ever more explicit the premises that underlay the right to abortion. As people like Rosa DeLauro and Connie Morella did that, as they were compelled to deny ever more emphatically the wrongness of killing the innocent, they debased themselves ever further. In the presence of this spectacle, it may show good taste simply to avert one’s eyes. But I return here, one more time, to Lindsey Graham’s bill because the reaction in Congress to it brought to the surface some deeper truths about the logic of “abortion rights,” a logic that the partisans of abortion have sought strenuously to deny.

The familiar cliché, of course, is that they have never actually endorsed abortion; they have affirmed only “choice” or the right to choose. But that cliché has been exposed now for many years, and if public figures cling to it, they can cling either out of witlessness or cynicism. In the famous debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Douglas had been the “pro-choice” candidate on slavery. He professed to having reached no moral judgment at all on the question, and so he could support the right of voters in the territories to vote slavery up or down. But as Lincoln pointed out, Douglas’s posture revealed the most emphatic moral judgment: To say that people should be free to choose slavery is to say that slavery is something quite legitimate for people to choose. It could not, evidently, be wrong, for the wrong is that which no one may rightly choose.

When Morella and DeLauro affirmed, so ringingly, the “right to choose” and the wrongness of depriving women of that choice, they were compelled to affirm the thoroughgoing rightness of any woman’s decision to kill an innocent child. What came out sharply in the debate on Graham’s bill was precisely what the defenders of abortion have denied for years: that the logic of their argument moves them well beyond the matter of “choice.” Their convictions, and their souls, have formed now around the notion of abortion as a positive good.

In the past, after all, the partisans of “choice” had been compelled to agree that, if a woman wants the child she is carrying, that child has standing as a person. It may be the object of the most intricate prenatal care, all predicated on the notion that there is a human being there, a patient who merits these exertions. For the same reason, that child has standing in the law to inherit property or to have a suit launched on his or her behalf against a negligent driver. The partisans of “choice” have never been in a position to deny these things or deny to pregnant women the right to vindicate through the law the interests of their unborn children.

But when it comes now to the federal bill, the defenders of abortion have set themselves adamantly on the side of denying these claims. The opposition on the floor was led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who complained that Graham’s bill:

…recognizes a member of the species Homo sapiens at all stages of development as a victim of crime, from conception to birth. This affords even an embryo legal rights equal to and separate from those of the woman.

Her corrective was an amendment that “recognizes the pregnant woman as the primary victim of a crime.” But a “primary” victim implies at least a “secondary” victim, and yet Lofgren’s amendment recognized no such victim, only “assaultive conduct against a pregnant woman.” Once again, the ideological screen came down: The only thing recognized was an assault on a woman. There would be no recognition at all that a second victim had suffered injuries or even a lethal assault.

Michael Lenz had testified before the Judiciary Committee about the loss of his wife and unborn child in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. In his commonsense understanding, Lenz thought he had lost both his wife and the son who was going to be born. But Lofgren and Morella, among the feminists and the liberals in Congress, steel themselves to see no such victim and no such injury.

Of course, a critical difference here is that a prosecutor could now prosecute for the death of Lenz’s unborn child, even if Mr. and Mrs. Lenz had not wanted that child—or were even about to destroy him in an abortion. And yet, the congressmen must appreciate that this kind of prospect is exceedingly unlikely. Actions to vindicate the life of the child are likely to be initiated in complaints brought by parents, who have an attachment to their child and a keen sense of their loss. At the same time, prosecutors know that they cannot use this law against people who choose abortions. For there is no federal statute that forbids and punishes abortions—and the drafters of the current bill have made it clear that this bill will not interfere with the right to abortion.

Why then all the storm and resistance? Why would the proponents of “choice” put themselves in the awkward position of denying, to Lenz, that he had lost a son? Why would they deny protections for the unborn, “wanted” child, protections that are quite compatible with the so-called principle of choice? The answer could only be that the significance of the matter runs well beyond its practical importance. We have thoroughly absorbed by now the slogan that we cannot “legislate morality,” that morality is about emotions rather than reason, and that people are more interested in practical benefits than abstract questions.

And yet all of this is belied in the reactions to Graham’s bill. The resisters have taken a firm hold only because the bill raises an issue of principle and makes a distinctly moral point. That moral point threatens none of their interests now. But they know that it plants premises running deeply and that it calls into question the moral rightness of their position across the full range of the laws that touch on the protection of life. In short, the partisans of abortion grasp, as surely as anyone can grasp, the logic and sweep of a moral principle. Their resistance makes sense only because they have grasped, with utter certainty, what they have spent their careers denying.


  • Hadley Arkes

    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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