In the Washington Post (November 18), Michael Kinsley returns to the complexity of abortion politics. "Machiavellians of my acquaintance believe that it is the anti-abortion folks who are getting conned. The last thing in the world that Republican strategists want is repeal of Roe. If abortion becomes a legislative issue again, all those pro-choice women and men who have been voting Republican because abortion rights were secure would have to reconsider, and many would bolt."
Whether or not that accurately reflects the thinking of "Republican strategists," Kinsley is no doubt on to something. At the same time, if it became apparent that those in control of the Republican Party were opposed to the reversal of Roe (whether directly or by what might be called a judicial bypass), the anti-abortion bolt from the party would be of a much greater magnitude. Perhaps "bolt" is not the right word. Millions would simply sit on their hands, withdrawing from electoral politics in the belief that they had been taken in by Republican promises.
"Meanwhile," writes Kinsley, "the reversal of Roe would energize the left the way Roe itself energized the right. Who needs that?" One might argue that the Republicans would welcome that. An energized left in the mode of Howard Dean that leads with abortion and a cut-and-run policy in Iraq could, for Republicans who remember the McGovern debacle in 1972, be reason to strike up the band with the other party's erstwhile theme song, "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Kinsley says, "Abortion is the most important issue in American politics. It shouldn't be." He is right on both counts. It should be added, however, that the reason it is the most important issue is that the Roe decision aimed at taking it out of American politics by an egregious act of arrogance that is aptly described as the judicial usurpation of politics. The result is that the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, are deeply embroiled in politics, as witness the confirmation fight over Judge Samuel Alito, in which abortion is the most important issue.
Kinsley continues, "Other [issues] have as big an impact on the lives of individuals and a far bigger cumulative effect on society. No other nation obsesses about abortion the way we do. But many Americans believe that legalized abortion is government-sanctioned murder, or something close to it. And many others (including me) believe that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder."
One might wonder whether any other issue has as "big an impact" on the lives of the million-plus children who are aborted each year. Or on the lives of innumerable mothers who cannot forget what they have done.
It is true that most other nations do not "obsess" over abortion the way we do. Good for us. In addition to saying something about the kind of people we are, there is the factor that other nations have addressed the question politically through their legislatures. In most cases, their people have a sense that they had a say in the matter, and will have a say in changing laws in the future.
As Mary Ann Glendon, an expert in comparative law at Harvard, points out, the United States is alone in the world in having embedded in its fundamental law, by judicial fiat, an unlimited abortion license. Unlike some other instances of judicial usurpation, Roe manifestly has not been democratically legitimated after the fact. It has not taken root, and it will not last.
Kinsley says that legally protecting the child in the womb would be "the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder." But of course that is the heart of the matter, isn't it? For millions of Americans, legal abortion is not short of sanctioning murder; it is sanctioning murder. Others would, with dubious logic, permit the killing of babies in "extreme" circumstancesrape, incest, and direct threat to the life of the mother being most often mentioned.
(One might note that being murdered is somewhat more than an "intrusion on personal freedom," but let that pass.)
Mr. Kinsley concludes: "Yet there is no abortion debate. Or at least the debate is unconnected to the reasons people on both sides feel so strongly about it. What passes for an abortion debate is a jewel of the political hack's art: a big issue that is exploited without being discussed."
There has been no debate or discussion? That will come as news to people on both sides who have been debating and discussing the issue for decades. For those on the pro-abortion side, however, Roe has served as a firewall against that debate having any legal effect. Soon, just maybe, that firewall will be dismantled. If and when that happens, a real political debate will be possible over the most basic public question that any society must address: Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility?
Are some who are undeniably human beings to be denied legal protection because they are too small, too weak, too dependent, or are for some other reason judged to be unwanted, and therefore expendable? By the answer to that question we will be judged. But the American people will not be able to answer that question with political and legal effect until after Roe.
I expect that Mr. Kinsley is right in thinking that some strategists on all sides have been playing political games with abortion. That will only end when the most public of questions is returned to the democratic deliberation and decision of the political arena. I would, therefore, like to think that he, too, is eagerly hoping for the demise of Roe.
You are never alone and never bored, John Adams wrote his son, if you have a book of poetry in your pocket. On the otherwise boring flight to Spain and back last week, I had with me R.S. Thomas: Poems, selected by Anthony Twaite and published by Phoenix Press.
Thomas, who died at age 87 in 2000, was an Anglican minister and very much a Welshman. Matthew Boudway, our former Managing Editor who is now in an advanced poetry program at Boston University, persuaded me to give Thomas serious attention, and I thank him for that.
There is this one, titled "The Country Clergy":
I see them working in old rectories
By the sun's light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men's hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.
My own ministry has been in the city, as have the ministries of others whom I know best. But it is the same. Although I will have left too many books, all of us wonder about the effectiveness of what we do. "God in his time or out of time will correct this."
Or consider a little poem under the title "Gifts":
From my father my strong heart,
My weak stomach.
From my mother the fear.
From my sad country the shame.
To my wife all I have
Saving only the love
That is not mine to give.
To my one son the hunger.
R.S. Thomas: Poems. It fits neatly in the pocket, and stays wondrously in the mind.
Responding to letters on his article "The Design of Evolution," Stephen Barr tries to clarify the distinction between a scientific theory and philosophy: "For understandable reasons some people mistakenly imagine that neo-Darwinism is a philosophical system, or entails one. As the letters from Joseph Fessio and Daniel Kuebler rightly emphasize, the blame for this mainly lies with such scientists as Richard Dawkins and James Watson. I suspect, however, that it may also have a linguistic basis. Very few scientific theories, as opposed to philosophical schools, are called 'isms' and named after their founders. One does not talk about Maxwellism, Heisenbergism, or Einsteinism. The prefix 'neo' also is more common in philosophy. Nevertheless, 'neo-Darwinism' is a scientific term. It is univocal and its meaning is generally agreed upon. It refers to the synthesis of Darwin's theory of natural selection with the science of genetics that took place in the 1920s and 1930s through the efforts of such men as Sewall Wright, J.B.S. Haldane, and R.A. Fisher. One may consult any number of dictionaries, old or recent, general or scientific, and one will find that each gives only this definition of the term. Consequently there can be no gainsaying the fact that in condemning 'neo-Darwinism' one is condemning a scientific, not a philosophic, theory". In the same forthcoming issue, which should reach subscribers in a couple of weeks, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, who started this round of discussion with his essay in the New York Times some while back, addresses the distinction between science and philosophy from a somewhat different perspective. Cardinal Schönborn's article is "The Designs of Science." (To become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS, check out the "Subscribe" button above.)
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