Defend the Moral High Ground

In recent years it has become a media cliche to say that the national debate over abortion is, in the words of Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, a "tragic clash of absolutes." Since twenty years of arguing have failed to silence die-hard opponents of Roe v. Wade, many commentators have concluded that there is nothing left to say beyond admonishing the antagonists to respect the sincerity of each other's beliefs, and no other way out of the noisy debate but to move toward political compromise.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the thickest collection of these admonitions has been directed not at Operation Rescue, but at pro-choice liberals. Because of the popular stereotype of liberals as being both less animated by moral values in their private lives and more enlightened in public-policy matters, they are widely presumed to be in special need of lectures on the sacred and to be more responsible for upholding civility in debate.

Thus, darlings of the media establishment like essayist-at-large Roger Rosenblatt, Anna Quindlen of the New York Times and, most recently, Stephen Carter of Yale Law School, urge pro-choicers to confess to misgivings about the morality of abortion and to seek common ground with the religious right. Despite the outcome of the 1992 election--in which the double whammy of an extreme anti-abortion Republican party plank and the acceptability of Ross Perot's pro-choice stance cost George Bush the presidency--it is rare to find pro-choice advocates today who do not feel compelled to assure everyone within earshot that they, too, appreciate that abortion is a morally grave decision and that no one is actually "for" abortion--and, oh yes, they respect the sincerity of those who call them, well, murderers and Nazis.

But if many pro-choice liberals misunderstood the mandate in 1992's vote, most pro-lifers did not. The sudden willingness of anti-abortion politicos to sanction the killing of fetuses in cases of rape and incest, and their shying away from imposing penalties on women who obtain abortions for whatever reason, makes it plain that crediting pro-lifers with sincerity is crediting them with too much. We now learn that most of those who've claimed to believe that abortion is the moral equivalent of murder actually do not.

When pro-lifers insist that even a six-week-old fetus is fully a person, yet in the next breath say that they will accept keeping abortion legal in cases of rape and incest (and now will even federally fund it in such cases), it becomes more obvious that they, too, hold a relative, not an absolute, view of the morality of abortion. If abortion opponents sincerely believe that a person is a person whether in utero or ex utero, killing a six-week-old fetus in the womb in cases of rape or incest would be as unthinkable as killing a six-year-old child born as a result of rape or incest. And if pro- lifers sincerely believe their own offensive, ignorant rhetoric that the 1.6 million abortions performed annually in the United States constitute another Holocaust, they would not be horse-trading the lives of fetuses in congressional committee for the sake of their own political survival.

To be sure, some stalwarts of the anti-abortion movement are pure in their beliefs. The Vatican, for example, has never budged from its view that abortion is utterly immoral and always impermissible, even when the life of the pregnant woman is endangered. But the vast majority of Americans, including Catholics, disagree with the Vatican's absolutism.

Since most of us are inclined to see abortion in relative terms, there is no basis for viewing our national debate as a "clash of absolutes" or to now conclude that a compromise moving the law closer to the positions of the tiny minority of absolutists is politically necessary or inevitable. But it may become inevitable if pro-choicers continue to credit pro-lifers with a sincere and moral worldview while mumbling apologies about finding abortion occasionally necessary.

Even though it kills human life, abortion is, in fact, the moral choice to make when would-be mothers ascertain that their present circumstances do not enable them to raise a would-be child responsibly. Contrary to popular accusation, it is not the decision to abort but the decision to have a child that is treated with insufficient gravity in our society.

There is no reason why pro-choice advocates should hesitate to say this forthrightly. Social liberals and secular humanists are no less motivated by considerations of morality than are social conservatives and members of organized religion. And as Ronald Dworkin points out in his new book, Life's Dominion, others do not have the right to compel us to act in ways that violate our own moral convictions.

Once most Americans come to fully appreciate that we already have a consensus in this country about abortion--that it is not murder--they will recognize that there is no rationale for having the state control it.