This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 20:
Does the topic of abortion make you uncomfortable? It should. Abortion is wrong.
I don’t write or talk about it much, though I hope I’ve done a sufficient job of bearing witness from my privileged public platform. It’s not that I lack passion or the courage of my convictions. But I speak and write to persuade and when I cannot see a way to reason with people I try not to shout at them.
That does not mean I accept the description of abortion as the World War I of policy debates, where participants despairing of a breakthrough resort to attrition. I believe with J. Budziszewski that people are logical, though slowly, and on abortion, as on slavery, they will sooner or later be forced to abandon untenable positions.
Thus I saw hope in the now-famous editorial by the interim editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal saying, because in some cultural communities it is common to abort girls, doctors should not reveal the sex of a foetus until so late in the pregnancy that abortion is almost impossible.
While a handful of thoughtful commentators said his solution was not practical because there are too many other ways to determine the sex of a foetus, the reaction of defenders of our modern “peculiar institution” (which, like slavery, dare not speak its name) was revealing in its unreason. This choice, they said, might be wrong, being anti-woman, but was still right.
Precisely the same point was made during the only other significant dispute thus far, in an otherwise free society, over whether something that seemed human really was and how to handle the question legally and politically. That’s why, in the run-up to the American Civil War, public attention unexpectedly fixed on series of debates between rising Whig star Abraham Lincoln and Democratic heavyweight Stephen Douglas in 1858.
Ostensibly they were contesting Douglas’s Illinois Senate seat, and neither man wanted to make slavery his main issue or take an extreme position on it. Lincoln was too canny a politician to tie his future to an issue that divided people and relegated purists to the fringes. And Douglas was no “fire-eater” pledged to defend slavery to the death; indeed after losing the 1860 presidential election to Lincoln on the northern Democrats’ ticket he denounced secession vehemently before his premature death in June 1861. But questions thrown out the front door have a way of climbing back in the window.
Thus while the 1858 debates have their share of tedious partisan bickering over long-forgotten trivia there are also moments of tremendous moral and rhetorical clarity, especially for Lincoln. In the unexpected moral crisis of those debates, on dusty stages in small Illinois towns, he choose to move toward the intellectual and moral light instead of away from it, and begin his ascent to the Gettysburg Address, his 2nd Inaugural and the statesman’s monument on the Washington Mall.
Douglas, who retained his Senate seat but visibly dwindled as he sought to fudge his way to the middle ground, repeatedly insisted that states and communities should simply choose for themselves whether to have slavery.
Not so, Lincoln thundered in their final encounter: “No man can say that he does not care if a wrong is voted up or down… [Douglas] says that whatever community desires slavery has a right to it. He can say so logically if it is not a wrong, but if he admits that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”
Ditto sex-selective abortion. The Ottawa Citizen, relegating the matter to a 2nd editorial, said “If there is a problem in some Canadian ethnic communities, the better approach is for doctors to counsel parents against aborting a fetus based on gender. In Canada, women have a right to choose abortion. In some cases, the reason for doing so might be regarded as deplorable, but that is still a woman’s choice.” Behind all the ifs and mights, piling a passive voice on a conditional, their fundamental position is that it’s wrong but you have a right to do it. But you don’t. You can’t.
Our “fire-eaters” are at least consistent: If you can abort the handicapped, sacrifice a child to your career, or give no reason at all, it cannot be wrong to abort a girl. Indeed, by their logic it is not even possible to “abort a girl” because there’s no person in there, just a clump of cells, and no causal or moral link between sex-selective abortion and a later shortage of female children. But most people can’t swallow that. They know the point of sex-selective abortions is to kill women before they are even born. Which is horrible.
That’s why this question won’t go away. Because abortion is wrong, and in their hearts everyone knows it.
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