Andrew Sullivan gives “Derbyshire Award” nominations to examples of what he sees as overheated and bigoted or otherwise unfair rhetoric. I think his nominations are often quite insightful, but here’s one that I can’t agree with:
DERBYSHIRE AWARD NOMINEE: “[A]bortion is in our day what slavery was in Lincoln’s. To vote for John Kerry in 2004 would be far worse, however, than to have voted against Lincoln and for his Democratic opponent in 1860. Stephen Douglas at least supported allowing states that opposed slavery to ban it. And he did not favor federal funding or subsidies for slavery. John Kerry takes the opposite view on both points when it comes to abortion. On the great evil of his own day, Senator Douglas was merely John Kerry-lite.” – Robert George and Gerald Bradley, co-authors of the FMA, in NRO. Now I get the Dred Scott reference.
I don’t think abortion is murder (and, no, I won’t get into that substantive debate, simply because I don’t think there’s much new that can be added to it). But I know that some decent people do think so, and it’s an entirely understandable position.
Even someone who is otherwise libertarian, or even otherwise liberal, may reach this position if he just accepts one moral axiom that I don’t accept — that human life begins at conception — but that isn’t inherently inconsistent with my other moral views. Just as I don’t find it ridiculous that some people would treat chimpanzees and gorillas as having a right to life (and even a right to life of the same magnitude as do humans), so I don’t find it ridiculous that some people would take the same view about fetuses. (It’s conceivable that a libertarian who believes that life begins at conception might nonetheless conclude that abortion should be permissible in cases of rape, but let’s aside this issue for now; the great majority of pregnancies do not result from rape.)
And if I am right on this, then surely the George & Bradley position is quite understandable, and even not particularly intemperate. If abortion is murder, then Roe v. Wade is not just a legal authorization for genocide, but a constitutional protection for genocide. The slavery of millions was a heinous evil, but murder of a million children per year would be an even greater evil. And indeed the pro-abortion-rights position would require all states to tolerate such murder; the mainstream pro-slavery position would have at least allowed states to outlaw slavery, and thus to permit slavery to be reduced and even eliminated through normal majoritarian legislative processes.
Now my sense is that many people who take the pro-life position don’t really think that abortion is exactly the same as murder, or else we’d be seeing a lot more anti-abortion activity, including more attacks on abortion clinics, more killings of abortion providers, and so on. Likewise, we’d be seeing more calls for punishing the woman — perhaps with the death penalty, or perhaps with life imprisonment or close to it — as well as the abortion provider.
But if one does think that it’s murder, or even that it’s killing that’s roughly the moral equivalent of slavery if not precisely of genocide, then the George & Bradley perspective is right, and quite unsurprising. That isn’t reason to agree with them: If one is pro-choice, then they’re wrong. But it seems to me that there’s nothing worthy of mockery in their view.
UPDATE: Reader Stuart Buck correctly pointed out that I’m being somewhat inexact in using “human life.” What I meant, and what is usually meant by this, is “human life of the sort entitled to rights.”
The two are often thought of as different at the end of life — a human being who is entirely brain-dead may still be said to be “alive,” but many people would think that it’s permissible to stop artificial life support for him. They may also be thought of as different at the beginning of life: Some may say that human life does begin at conception, but that the fetus doesn’t become a rights-bearing creature until has developed to some level; just as a human stops being a rights-bearing creature once it has lost enough function, for instance when it’s brain-dead. It’s thus more accurate to say that the debate isn’t about when human life as such begins or ends, but about when rights-holding human life begins or ends.
In any case, I add this for the sake of precision; it doesn’t affect my main analysis above.