March 26, 2009

In a recent column for, the generally admirable Catholic politician Lew Lehrman makes the case for invoking the Abolitionist movement as the historic precedent for the pro-life attempt to protect the lives of the unborn. I pasted the following in the comments box, which I think should be of interest to Takimag readers:

I know it seems rhetorically clever, in an age when racist jokes are considered worse than adultery, to try linking one evil which goes insufficiently recognized (abortion) with another universally condemned (slavery). But this tactic is counter-productive in even the medium term.

First of all, to be brutally candid, it trivializes abortion. Evil as slavery was in practice (especially in its American variety, which broke up marriages, sold off children, and discouraged religious preaching to blacks), it was never remotely as evil as abortion. It amounts, in essence, to the theft of labor—and theft isn’t quite as evil as killing. Of course, one could rightly see it as “defrauding the laborer of his just wages,” and thus a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance, which would put it in the same category as voluntary murder.

(Now slavery as practiced in America was profoundly evil, worse than the biblical slavery which St. Paul tolerated. That scriptural precedent was the reason the Catholic Church didn’t outright condemn slavery—something Cardinal Newman agonized over. American slavery, as Eugene Genovese documented, allowed masters to kill slaves with impunity, which brings it closer to the practice of abortion today. What that means is that Americans took slavery, something already evil, and perverted to something far worse. But it still isn’t as evil as murdering your child.)

Secondly, the historical precedent isn’t a pretty one, and invoking it hurts our case. Every other country in the world in the 19th century (from Russia to Brazil) that abolished slavery did so without a civil war. The radicalism of the abolitionist movement, and the responsive radicalism of the Southern secessionists, nearly tore the country apart. What is more, the justice of Lincoln fighting a war (as he admitted) to preserve the Union is still debatable, given the original theory on which the Union was founded—that of sovereign states. The decentralism implied in the (admittedly tainted) phrase “states’ rights” comes much closer to Catholic social teaching (subsidiarity) than the centralist, Jacobin theory of the State that prevailed with the Union victory. The triumph of Washington, D.C., over the states is the reason that the mores of Greenwich Village and Hollywood are being stuffed down the throats of Alabamans and Iowans. Given the superior skills of urban elites at holding power and manipulating opinion, this seems likely to be the inevitable result of centralized power. In other words, if you agree that there shall be one law for the whole nation, it will always, in the end, be imposed by the social Left.

Furthermore, suggesting that a set of natural rights, discerned by intellectuals and imposed by judges, must trump the wishes of the population will equally result in the victory of leftist social activism. Who produces most of the lawyers, law professors, and judges? Does anyone really expect that the answer to this question will cease to be “Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton,” that such institutions will yield to “Ave Maria, Regent, and Liberty universities”? If not, the victory of judicial power will always remain a tool of elites who wish to impose their prejudices upon a relucant population. If you want to see the outcome of such a theory, look at the EU and the European Court of Human Rights. I’d prefer that slightly bigoted Bretons, Catalans, Bavarians, Serbs, and Slovaks enacted socially conservative legislation in their regions… even if it meant that (for instance) they weren’t especially kind to Gypsies, to a totalizing system that enforced “human rights”—which will ALWAYS end up including the right to abortion.

Social conservatism must rely on decentralism, populism, anti-elitism, and a certain degree of healthy, pre-rational “prejudice” (in Edmund Burke, not Archie Bunker’s sense). We can’t turn the pro-life movement into a Kantian, ideological monstrosity.

And an ineffective one at that. Does anybody really think that if 47 states were pro-life, that we could effectively enforce a ban on abortion in the other three—which would be, of course, California, New York, and Massachusetts? By comparing ourselves to the abolitionists, do we mean to say that we’d fight a civil war to keep those states in a pro-life Union? Then why don’t we support John Browns who shoot up clinics? Is that what we’re saying here?

The state-by-state approach to banning abortion, combined with a concerted attempt to make abortion disgraceful (you know, like smoking cigarettes or making racist jokes) offers much more promise than such political fantasies.


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