Hawks and social conservatives in the United States find themselves in a delicate coalition that will either solidify or disperse. Can it survive Giuliani and his campaign for the Republican nomination for president? He says he’s against terrorism and abortion and would fight the former but tolerate the latter. None of us engaged in this conversation are at risk anymore of being aborted, and so some pragmatic conservatives favor Giuliani for what they see as his commitment to common sense.
You have probably already discovered one distinct advantage of supporting abortion rights if you have loved ones who have had an abortion. It’s just easier. Betray your qualms about the practice in general and they are liable to feel you’ve betrayed them, and then you in turn are liable to feel their resentment. If your sole objective is to avoid social conflict, you might well calculate that the ticket is to keep your thoughts to yourself and say you’re pro-choice.
Expedience is the oxygen politicians run on, but they can’t say that, and so they invoke or invent principles that enable them to pander and call it philosophy. "Government should stay out of the bedroom." It’s a catchy tune, but the lyrics don’t match the purported theme. Abortion doesn’t take place in the bedroom. Consensual sex does. So does rape. So what are they saying? They’re not saying anything. They’re conjuring a taboo. "Reproductive freedom." They don’t mean you should be free to reproduce. They mean something almost opposite. They mean you should be able to terminate your child if you reproduced but didn’t mean to, or did mean to but have since changed your mind. Recall the confused mother in South Park who, seeking to spare her eight-year-old son any more of her parental inadequacy, sets out to get abortion made legal through the fortieth trimester.
Pare away the politicking and posturing and anti-Catholicism, the circumlocution and the bumper stickers designed to distract us from the train of thought set in motion by the unique and almost unspeakably profound intimacy of the relationship between a pregnant woman and her gestating child¯pare all that away and what remains is the opinion that what is wrong with the effort to enshrine in law your right to life is that by itself it’s unbalanced. You also have a right to die, which, when you were literally an infant (that is, incapable of speech, of articulating your right to anything), you required a proxy to weigh and consider. That was your mother. What could possibly be the rationale for designating anybody else?
What has since become the operative, though largely tacit, argument for abortion rights did not figure in Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade , which stipulates your right to abortion only in the active voice. As for your right to have been aborted, or not, the Court in Roe was silent. But follow its conclusion (not its argument, which is shaky, but its conclusion, which is firm) down to its logical roots. Your right to have been born was already established or at any rate never in question. Your right to have been aborted was what was contested. To secure that, you have to accept some restriction on your corresponding right to life. It’s not absolute. Those twin rights, your right to live and your right to die, are equal under the law and are equally subordinated to the mother’s right to choose between them.
This line of reasoning comes into full view only when abortion rights are situated in the larger context of the right-to-die movement, for whose cause most Americans harbor some sympathy, as the controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo a couple of years ago led analysts on the pro-life side to consider with renewed interest. People trying to put themselves in Schiavo’s place thought that if they were she they would want to die. Others thought, with equal emotion, that they’d want to live. If I think I should enjoy the right to die, or to live, I think you should too. Most of us still try to justify our moral convictions by some reference to the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative, the ancient wisdom that any moral code be universalized so that whatever good I would wish for myself I would wish, ceteris paribus , for you and you and everyone.
Here is the wellspring of the passion and tenacity that have marked the antiabortion movement for forty years now: To observe the Golden Rule when thinking about this moral issue means that you try to identify not only with the woman having the abortion but also with the child being aborted. Joan Andrews, who during the period 1979 through 1986 was arrested more than a hundred times for demonstrating at and, in some cases, vandalizing abortion clinics, wrote in one of her letters from prison that her aim was "to wipe out the line of distinction" between the unborn and everyone else. "I don’t want to be treated any differently than my brother, my sister. You reject them, you reject me."
That such intensity of identification with the aborted burns on both sides of the abortion debate is something Andrews and her activist peers may have been slow to appreciate. Pretty much cotemporaneous with the movement to establish the legal right to abort has been the movement to establish the legal right to have been aborted. In wrongful-life litigation, as it is called, an adult usually acts on behalf of a child whose right to die in utero was frustrated by the failure of medical practitioners to inform the parents of fetal abnormality. And at least one adult has filed a wrongful-life suit on her own behalf, maintaining that her having been born constitutes a violation of her right not to have been.
For the most part, the case for wrongful life¯to be distinguished from wrongful birth, the idea that parents can sue a doctor for the hardship caused them by the birth of a child they would have aborted had they been told the child was deformed or disabled¯has not been well received by the legal community. Perhaps this is because the pro-choice principle rendered in the passive voice would lead to a question that, though it completes the logic of Roe , undermines the practical outcome Roe dictates. If I could claim the right to have been aborted, why couldn’t I claim the right not to have been aborted?
Norma McCorvey, who these many years later now works quietly in the ranks of the antiabortion movement, never had an abortion. What she agreed to sue the attorney general of Dallas County for was the right to one. Adapting that precedent and joining it to the one established by the legal recognition of wrongful birth, the argument for which is cast in the perfect tense of the passive voice, someone born in the United States after January 22, 1973, might reason that he has a right to have been legally protected from the surgeon’s forceps¯not to be protected from them now but to have been protected from them then, to have had the state stand between them and him.
What are we supposed to say to him, an adult like the rest of us but unwilling to overlook that there was a time when he could enjoy neither abortion rights nor immunity from the power that others had to exercise those rights over him? Call it the argument of last resort or the argument patiently waiting to be made, but there it is, assembled and ready to go: You do enjoy the right not to have been aborted¯after all, it’s what you ultimately chose¯though it is necessarily qualified by the state’s prior obligation to protect your right to choose between life and death. (For background music, replay here the mystery clause from Planned Parenthood v. Casey .) At any given moment, you are exercising either your right to life or your right to die. They are mutually exclusive, and the state cannot remedy that. The most it can do is guarantee the right that both descend from¯the right to choose between them, to choose one and reject the other. Acting in what she deemed to be my interest, my mother made for me my choice for life, just as it would have been through her that my sister, had she been aborted, made her choice for death.
Despite broad public support for the abortion-euthanasia nexus, at least in hard cases such as Terri’s Schiavo’s, our right to die is not an agenda item anyone running for president in this age of Jihad and terror alerts wants us to think he would feel particularly motivated to promote from the bully pulpit. But the right to die happens to be the ground of the right to abort. Abortion rights come with the soil they are planted in, and the politician who brings them into his campaign brings in the whole plot. Everyone understands that, even if the understanding never rises to the surface.
Most of our cognition is unconscious¯or, to put it more plainly, unexamined. The convention is that our unconscious mind is a jungle and irrational. It may be a jungle, but it is the opposite of irrational. It’s hyperrational. The lion that stalks it is dreaded not because he runs roughshod over the Pythagorean theorem or the formulas for calculating the distance between Earth and a given star. His ferocity consists rather in the remorselessness of his obedience to the law of logical consistency. What provokes him and disturbs our sleep are our flimsy rationalizations, the excuses and makeshift arrangements we have cobbled together to conceal our moral inconsistency.
And so voters who don’t see it are still able to sense it, however dimly, this inconsistency between Giuliani’s tough talk about confronting the enemy and his flustered talk about protecting your right to choose. The inconsistency between the toughness and the fluster is only the surface expression of the fundamental inconsistency between his assertion that he would carry out America’s iron will to defend itself and his implication that he supports your personal right to curl up in the fetal position and die if that’s what you want. The advance of the pro-choice hawk is impeded to the degree that his two wings work against each other. Part of what made Reagan compelling was that his foreign and his domestic policy taken together were morally coherent.
Thatcher went far with less coherence, and Goldwater went further than expected, although in Britain in the 1980s and in the United States in the 1960s the psyche of the voting population was less sensitive to abortion than is the voting population Giuliani must appeal to now. The percentage of its base that the Republican party would disappoint and perhaps lose outright if Giuliani were its presidential nominee is hard to estimate, but it is natural to wonder whether it would be to the GOP what Reagan Democrats and dovish, seamless-garment pro-lifers have been to the Democratic party for a generation now¯a missing component of its natural constituency, a player without whom it has not been able to win a majority of the vote in a national election.
Nicholas Frankovich is managing editor of Fordham University Press.