As the pro-life community begins to look seriously at the possible
field of Republican presidential contenders in 2000 we will see what, if
anything, has been learned from the debacle of the 1996 race. In that
race, pro-life conservatives split their support among a variety of
candidates, all of whom claimed to be pro-life and many of whom were, in
fact, no friends to the cause. Before we get too far along in the 2000
cycle, we should stop to think about what minimum conditions we should
place on anyone who volunteers for the job of pro-life standard bearer
What would be disqualifying? Suppose a former pro-abortion activist
— who learned in the last election that these views made him
unacceptable — began to spend lots of words and money opposing
partial-birth abortion. Suppose this ambitious person scrupulously
avoided ever calling outright for the overturning of Roe vs. Wade,
arguing that the nation needs persuasion, not legislation.
Perhaps such a person should keep the charitable attention of the
pro-life community for a while, as we waited to see what the quality of
his persuasion would be. But suppose the theory of “persuasion” were
then combined with the deed of actively campaigning for, say, the most
vehemently pro-abortion governor in the United States, who had recently
vetoed her state’s ban on partial-birth abortions and was locked in a
close re-election battle. I think that any pro-life activist who would
expect pro-life deeds from such a person after helping to put him in the
White House would not be demonstrating the wisdom necessary to move the
pro-life agenda forward effectively.
Steve Forbes — to reveal our mystery guest — will probably not
prove to be much of a temptation to the pro-life movement. Let me move
on to a harder case.
Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri is widely expected to seek the
Republican presidential nomination. He is justifiably respected in
conservative ranks, and has a well-deserved reputation for integrity and
political courage. Many conservatives have presumed, quite reasonably,
that he would be a solid voice for moral truth in the presidential
discussion. It is taken for granted that Sen. Ashcroft would be a
pro-life presidential candidate.
For these reasons, I was surprised and saddened recently to learn
that Sen. Ashcroft’s official position paper on abortion — distributed
by his office to anyone inquiring into the senator’s position on the
issue — does not express the pro-life position. The pro-life community
needs to look candidly at the following paragraph, taken from the
official Ashcroft statement on abortion:
“My long-standing opposition to abortion involves consideration of a
wide variety of factual situations that affect both the mother and the
unborn child. These include questions about the developmental stage of
the unborn child and the effects of an abortion on the mother. Thus, I
oppose most abortions, such as abortions performed because the unborn
child has the “wrong” gender. Given the availability of effective birth
control, I also oppose multiple abortions for purposes of birth
control. However, I recognize the right of a woman to choose to have an
abortion in cases of rape or incest. Likewise, I support a woman’s
right to have an abortion in the event that carrying the child to full
term would threaten her life.”
We must examine this statement without being distracted by dreams of
“electability” or personal reputation. We need to examine it as we
would if we had no idea who held it, and to ask simply whether it is an
adequate position to put forward as an expression of the pro-life
cause. If it is not, then anyone who holds it cannot be acceptable as
the pro-life standard bearer.
In my view, the statement would fundamentally disqualify anyone from
consideration as a pro-life candidate, simply because it is not a
pro-life statement. It is the statement of somebody who is incidentally
pro-life, and who could easily become something else if his assessment
of this or that little fact in the world changes. Sen. Ashcroft doesn’t
say his opposition to abortion is based on moral truth, and then give
the principles and show how they lead him to a pro-life conclusion. His
position on abortion, rather, “involves consideration of a wide variety
of factual situations” — it is, in other words, based on the
circumstances. Abortion is not, apparently, a fundamental matter of
justice, right and wrong.
The statement declares, for no particular reason, “I recognize the
right of a woman to choose to have an abortion in cases of rape or
incest.” But whatever emotional effect these cases have on us, and
however gently we should deal with pro-lifers who make these exceptions
for emotional reasons, recognition in any principled way of a “right to
choose” in such cases is ultimately impossible.
The child in the case of rape or incest is no different from the
child in any other case. The fact of rape or incest is irrelevant to
the child’s rights, if it is true that those rights are inviolable
because they come, as the Declaration of Independence makes clear, not
from any human choice but by endowment from God. The Declaration makes
it clear that we are all created equal, whoever our parents may be.
So the position expressed in this statement is not a principled one.
And unprincipled positions are easy to change. Opposition to abortion
that is not reached by coherent reasoning from fundamental principles of
justice cannot be trusted, because when the “situation” changes, the
position just might change with it.
It is precisely by applying our own fallible judgment to complicated
circumstances, instead of looking to the principle that distinguishes
right from wrong, that our nation has involved itself in much of the
injustice and immorality that conservatives must oppose. We oppose
teaching children in school that licentious sexuality is to be condoned
because of the “situation.” We reject the unequal treatment of
criminals based upon the various and inevitable differences of their
formative environment. We understand that such reasoning will destroy
us as a nation.
So when we are offered statements nominally opposed to abortion, but
which make it clear that the opposition is not principled, we must
insist that the position — from that fact alone — is not an acceptable
statement of the pro-life standard.
And not only is it the wrong logic, but a holder of this position
will in fact fail to advance the cause in any practical way. If Sen.
Ashcroft presents his list of assertions as the pro-life position, and
then is rebutted with facts or emotional arguments he didn’t anticipate,
his position will fall to pieces. He will already have ceded the issue
of principle by talking about the mother’s right to choose in the case
of rape or incest, where no such rights could possibly be justified
based on the Declaration principles this nation was founded upon.
If we cast our lot with such a leader, then rather than reminding the
nation of its commonly held principles and effectively showing how the
pro-life position follows necessarily from them, he risks being eaten
alive by anyone who sees the incongruity of his position. A candidate
setting sail on such a leaky boat would probably sink into an
embarrassed, Dole-like silence when the issue of abortion was raised.
If the pro-life movement doesn’t want to let another presidential
cycle go by in tongue-tied silence, we had better resolve to insist on a
standard-bearer with the stature, wisdom, and clear-eyed devotion to
principle necessary to make the pro-life case effectively to the hearts
and minds of the American people.