Lincoln Inspires Bush…And Bush Instructs the People

William F. Buckley, meditating on the politics of abortion, suggested before the GOP convention that George W. Bush would do well to address the subject in a fireside chat. Although Buckley’s piece was prompted by the now moot controversy concerning the vice-presidential feasibility of Governor Tom Ridge, a “pro-choice” Catholic, its directives survive the immediate occasion. Buckley began by noting that the public is deeply divided on abortion, that the issue admits of no near-term solution, and that a number of prominent Catholic politicians are pro-choice. Since a president can do little about abortion in any event, he added, it ought to have been possible to assess Ridge’s credentials without regard to his views on abortion. Nevertheless, the thought may linger that Ridge’s rejection was dictated by pro-life enthusiasms offensive to the spirit of a pluralist society. While Bush might instruct the public in Lincolnian fashion, he needs above all to reassure the nation “that there is no way [his] administration could get in the way of those who elect abortion, and no way he would consent to do so assuming he had that power.”

The country is certainly overdue for a thoughtful address on abortion, especially by the pro-life candidate, but should Bush proceed in the manner and for the reasons Buckley suggests?

Granting deep public antagonism on the subject, it is not immediately apparent why the desired salient ought to be the placation of pro-choice sensibilities. After all, proponents of abortion hardly lack resources to protect or promote their interests. The federal judiciary, the Democratic Party, the news media, the entertainment industry, the professoriate, most deep-pocket foundations, and virtually every other influential power center in the culture are overwhelmingly in their corner. Their reach has not yet extended to the Republican Party, but not for want of trying. Although polling evidence is to the contrary, the argument persists that the GOP’s anti-abortion stand damages the party. It is further said that the party can safely soften its position: Pro-lifers will grumble but in the end support Bush lest they be forced to suffer Gore. Perhaps, but why not try it the other way around? Where will pro-choice Republicans go now that George W. has strongly reaffirmed his party’s pro-life stance? If they defect to Gore or stay at home, does that not suggest a certain hypnotic attachment to the issue of a sort unlikely to be mollified by the gesture Buckley has in mind? Why the presumption, in short, that pro-life intransigence is what needs to be explained?

Appease or Instruct?

If anything, it is the pro-life constituency that needs political support. Although lacking the powerful financial and institutional resources readily available to the opposition, these folks have labored heroically for three decades in defense of transcendently important legal and moral principles. For this, they are routinely castigated and caricatured by the media, patronized by politicians who promise much but deliver little, and have even been stripped of First Amendment rights taken for granted by advocates of every other cause. With the Democratic Party and the Supreme Court acting like wholly owned subsidiaries of the National Abortion Rights Action League, the GOP is the only politically effective stronghold of pro-life opinion. Although it sometimes says so artlessly, the Republican Party stands for the proposition that a good and decent people will not legitimate the execution of its offspring. There ought to be no shame in that. a, Governor Bush’s fine acceptance speech reminded us. The truly shameful thing is that those who take the opposing view no longer feel ashamed.

Governor Bush’s speech was animated by the worthy moral sentiment that unborn children deserve some sort of legal protection. That same sentiment still rings true in American hearts, but its force has been politically incapacitated by the Supreme Court. Recently, five justices affirmed that the right to abortion includes the right to kill partially delivered babies. Nothing reveals more clearly the extent to which some justices have become captive to socially respectable nihilism. Whether they or their supporters recognize the necessary implications of their argument is beside the point; willy-nilly, they are providing an intellectual and legal rationale for what John Paul II correctly calls “the culture of death.”

That point has not escaped Governor Bush’s attention, but it seems to have landed lightly on those who think that pro-life enthusiasm in a presidential candidate may offend the spirit of pluralism. Buckley has it precisely backward. With the legalization of partial-birth abortion, the last thing the nation needs is a GOP animated by the urge to appease pro-abortion sensibilities; they have been abundantly assuaged already by judicial force and elite opinion. What we need is a Republican nominee who will say without embarrassment that, pending the desired change in the culture, abortion must be kept within all reasonable limits. That would be a truly Lincolnian instruction, and George W. has perhaps begun to provide it.

What a President Can Do

Buckley is also mistaken when he argues that a president can do little about abortion. A president can in fact do a great deal about it, without causing riots in the streets, as the example of Ronald Reagan amply testifies. A pro-life president need not and should not castigate abortion proponents, or squander political capital on dubious legislative gestures. The powers of the presidency are nevertheless vast and those of its bully pulpit unrivaled. Although a president cannot overrule Supreme Court decisions on constitutional questions, his legal oath is no less authoritative than that taken by the justices. As Lincoln repeatedly pointed out, the political branches are not bound to accept the Court’s constitutional reasoning as they are bound to accept its judgment in particular cases. All sorts of legislative possibilities, affecting both substantive law and appropriations, lie within a president’s discretion to propose or support (case in point, Rep. Charles Canady’s bill to protect infants born alive). He can also wield his veto when necessary, and see to it that the Justice Department takes the desired position in relevant cases. He has considerable supervisory authority as well over executive departments, most conspicuously State, Defense, and Health and Human Services and its allied satrapies (e.g., the National Institutes of Health). All of these agencies promote abortion at home or abroad, but almost none of their efforts is even implicitly mandated by Supreme Court rulings.

In short, notwithstanding five errant justices, a president can rely on a large supply of constitutional discretionary authority, beginning with strong appointments and extending to intelligently drafted legislation, regulations, executive orders, and speeches. Bill Clinton has not been shy about using his discretionary authority to support abortion, neither should George W. shrink from using his to oppose it. The ripple effects of presidential actions, especially when supported by well-crafted statements, will be felt in Congress and the culture at large. The presidency is many things, but in the right hands, it is a powerful teacher that instructs by deed as well as word. Buckley seems to have forgotten that fact, as he seems to have forgotten that although abortion has been licensed by the Court, its promotion is certainly not required and need not be encouraged. In speaking to the nation, candidate Bush should remind the people of that elemental fact. That, too, would be Lincolnian.

This leaves the question of judicial appointments. Buckley suggests that Bush should limit himself to saying that his nominees will share his views on the separation of powers. Events are likely to deprive that recommendation of its cautionary restraint. We need to remind ourselves that the political intractability of abortion is almost entirely a consequence of presumptuous judicial meddling. Gore has made it plain that his judicial appointees will uphold Roe v. Wade. Bush need not promise the opposite, but circumlocution will carry him only so far when debate intensifies, as it probably will, on abortion. Two to four Supreme Court vacancies likely will occur during the next presidential term, not to mention hundreds among lower federal courts. The president’s judicial appointments will affect the course of the nation for many years, as the senior Bush’s improvident selection of David Souter sadly reminds us. Never before in our history has the judiciary exercised such great power over so many vital questions of public policy, never before has the Supreme Court been so bold in asserting its will, and never before have the political branches been so complacent in response. Judicial excess may well become a major issue in the presidential campaign, in large part because of the Court’s wretched mishandling of abortion. Liberals know what is at stake, and they will neither pull their punches nor shy from engagement. Bush may prudently wish to avoid this battle, but what will he do when his opponents accuse him of being an enemy of women’s “choice” and “health”? Buckley’s argument is that Bush ought to retreat, strategically, in the interest of national comity.

Teaching First Principles

Lincoln would be astonished by that suggestion and remind Buckley that the spirit of pluralism has been violated by the draconian actions of the Court, not by those who oppose the Court’s aggressive intervention. Lincoln would be cautious about agitating an already overheated controversy but insist that a decent respect for pluralism must not mask a surrender to intolerable principles. In instructing the people about the issue, he would lead them by degrees to the moral postulates that ought to guide their opinion. It is not yet clear how far Governor Bush intends to go, but if he wishes to be inspired by Lincoln’s example, he might try something like this:

“Good and decent people can disagree about abortion, especially in the early stages, but all will agree that the huge number of abortions performed in the United States is a national tragedy. They also agree that abortion ought not to be undertaken for frivolous reasons. No one would oppose abortion, for example, when necessary to save the mother’s life, and most feel the same way about cases of rape or incest. But such instances account for only a tiny fraction of the whole. The overwhelming majority of abortions are carried out for other reasons. Like most Americans, I find that both sad and deeply troubling.

“The question ultimately before the nation is how we shall go about determining who is or is not a member of the human community. While a politically satisfactory answer to that profound question is not yet at hand, it cannot be resolved on the ground of mere personal or religious preference. Rather, we should take our inspiration from the sacred principles set forth in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. We there affirm the truth that our rights are of divine origin. That principle at once establishes the legitimate basis for government authority and places limits on its exercise. Because rights inhere in the very nature of human beings, they are not ours to dispense with as we will. Whenever government denies or ignores that truth, the seeds of tyranny are sown. Deciding whether unborn children are properly rights-bearing creatures may not admit of easy political resolution, but how we go about answering the question will test whether we take seriously the Declaration’s teaching.

“Pending a resolution of the larger issue, we can at least take reasonable steps to ensure that abortion is made rare rather than routine.

“We should, for example, reexamine laws that grant minors easy access to abortion. It is intolerable that a minor cannot receive so much as an aspirin without parental consent but is nevertheless free to obtain an abortion. We do youngsters no favor by indulging this unwise accommodation.

“We should also see to it that those considering abortion are fully informed beforehand of the relevant facts—about the nature of the child before birth, and about the physical and emotional consequences of abortion. We properly insist that detailed information of all sorts be disclosed before the purchase of commercial products and services; we should do at least as much before a decision that will profoundly, and often tragically, affect the rest of a woman’s life.

“Above all, we need to address the problem at its roots. Treating unwelcome pregnancies only after the fact is unwise and short-sighted. A truly compassionate policy will not seek to solve the problem by pretending that abortion is without emotional or physical risk to the pregnant woman. Though we may differ about the ultimate issue, the moral imagination of a good and decent people should not be limited by the tyranny of contemporary fashion. Shall it be said of America as it enters the 21st century that our resources of compassion were exhausted by legitimating abortion on demand? Shall it be said that we could discover no other way to address unwelcome pregnancy than by eliminating ‘unwanted’ children? Shall it be said that we could not find in our hearts some way to protect our progeny from the surgeon’s knife? Surely we can do better than that. Surely we can devote our energies to more humane alternatives.

“We should begin addressing the underlying causes. We should, for example, increase support for programs that build respect for life among teenagers by teaching them to postpone sexual activity until they can assume the responsibilities of parenthood. And we need to provide additional funding for organizations that provide maternity care to unwed mothers and facilitate adoptions of ‘unwanted’ newborns. A truly compassionate people will not present abortion as the preferred option for women.

“While these and similar programs are being pursued, it is unfortunately necessary to take legal steps to guard against the specter of infanticide. The implications of the recent Supreme Court decision permitting partial-birth abortion are truly horrible to behold. The American people are correct to oppose, in overwhelming numbers, this barbaric practice. And they have every right to demand that their legislators take action to forbid it. Congress and 31 state legislatures responded in the noblest traditions of American politics. But Bill Clinton has repeatedly vetoed Acts of Congress prohibiting the practice. My opponent says he will do the same. A narrow majority of the Court has voided state legislation. Together, they have made it impossible to erect effective barriers against killing infants in the very process of being born. More ominously, the justices ruled in a way that may permit even the killing of babies who are fully separated from their mother.

“I would remind you that although abortion is constitutionally permissible, it does not follow that the practice must be encouraged or required. Accordingly, I urge enactment of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act now pending in Congress. Ensuring legal protection for infants who survive abortion is the very least we can do. If elected, I will use my office in every proper way to keep abortion within all reasonable limits, especially during the later stages of pregnancy. In doing so, I will be guided by the moral sense of the people.

“Nearly a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln took the first step toward abolishing slavery by pointing out the glaring inconsistency between the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision and the Declaration’s truth that all men are endowed with an inalienable right to liberty. I pledge to you that, if elected, I will follow Lincoln’s example by affirming the equally sacred truth that every human being is also endowed with an inalienable right to life.

“To repeat: There is room for political disagreement about abortion. But in the effort to justify abortion, a majority of the Supreme Court has now embraced a teaching about human beings that wars with the most cherished principles of our nation. Five justices have said that the right of one human being to exist depends on the will of another. With all due respect, that is an intolerable doctrine for a free people who wish to remain free. Whatever we may decide to do about abortion, that teaching of the Court cannot stand unrefuted.”

The People Prefer Lincoln

Much more could be said in this vein. It will not please the more ardent advocates of abortion, but there is nothing a pro-life candidate could say that would please them. The evidence suggests, however, that the overwhelming number of Americans do not share the ideologized enthusiasms of the feminist party line. They are troubled, and rightly so, about frivolous justifications for abortion, and they are massively opposed to abortion in the later stages. What they need from Governor Bush is a way to think about the issue that comports with their instinctive moral sense and unites that sense to the first principles of the American credo. They need to be reminded that no lasting resolution of the problem can be effected without reference to those principles or without the freedom to express their moral sentiments in law. And they need to be particularly reminded that no one’s rights can be made to depend on the will of another. Let Gore defend partial-birth abortion, which is opposed by 70 percent of the nation, and let him explain how it differs from infanticide. And let him explain that “pluralism” trumps the people’s right to determine what the nation’s abortion policy should be. Bush need not worry: The people will prefer Lincoln.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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