Thinking About Abortion
The conclusion of James Davison Hunter’s article, “What Americans Really Think About Abortion” (June/July), shows clearly why the abortion issue has become for us Americans a “regime question.” For in addition to every individual horror that has been authorized by our current abortion law, the reign of Roe v. Wade has effected profound collateral damage on the common understanding of the principles fundamental to our democratic republic.
What Hunter aptly calls “the language of ‘rights’ and ‘choice’ that resonates most broadly in the public arena,” and which is also favored by the proponents of abortion-on-demand, embodies exactly the conception of “rights” and “choice” that is the forbidden fruit of a democratic republic. At once the credo of the anarchist and the authoritarian, this subjectivistic and conventionalist view of “rights” and “freedom” is the dangerous pseudo-doctrine that John Locke countered long ago with the righteous phrases, “Where there is no law there is no freedom,” and “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” This temptation for a moral theory founded on the idea of “natural rights” is, thus, nothing new. Perhaps, however, even more than the challenge posed by slavery, the understanding of the nature of morality at the heart of Roe v. Wade threatens the basic coherence of our everyday ethical discourse . . . .
Let us try to recollect a few things that ought to be “self-evident.” In the first place, all of our “rights” belong to a system of moral claims in which these rights are reciprocally correlated with corresponding sets of duties . . . . Second, and as was taught by both Jefferson and Lincoln, “There can be no moral right to do what is morally wrong.” . . . Last, the only things reasonably and morally left to the vagaries and whims of individual “choice” must all be things either positively just, innocent, or at least morally indifferent . . . . Strange as it may seem, the survival of our constitutional order may well depend on the American people understanding (again!) the broader and narrower implications of the need for significantly restricting the so-called “right to abortion.”
James Davison Hunter has clarified the terms of an intensifying but confused debate. He sees hope for the pro-life movement in further discussion on the part of religious groups which, by their nature, can see the larger interest (sacred, social) in protecting fetal life as opposed to individual (the aborting mother’s) claims.
One may agree with that, as I do, and still seek a way of more directly persuading an American majority on more centrally political grounds, where secular concerns of a rational and juridical nature also come into play.
If I were drafting [a position paper on abortion] I would appeal to the sense of moderation in the American ethos. Neither extreme: pro-choice or pro-life.
The reasoning is as follows: most folks, like me, see a dilemma as to the human status of the early-term fetus. Aborting it is somewhere between murder (clearly a public concern) and the extinction of an insignificant form of life (a private matter). Accordingly, society and government have a moderate, or partial, interest in the act. Just how that interest is spelled out is best left to public and parliamentary debate and vote in the various states. But the overall direction is clear: [we should move toward] a moderate position, detailing the kinds of limitation, patiently worked out in the democratic process, state by state . . . .
Robert Greer Cohn
Emeritus Professor of French
I found Christopher Wolfe’s essay “Abortion and Political Compromise” (June/July) valuable and persuasive in a general sense. I too oppose abortions except in extreme and rare cases, and I also think that a political compromise on this issue is necessary. But I was certainly struck by Wolfe’s statement that abortion is an “ ‘unconscionable crime’ . . . in ways that any person, whatever his or her religion, should be able to see.”
This statement is odd in the context of an argument for political compromise, for with the issue of abortion in particular, it is the inability to see how others could rationally disagree with one’s own convictions that makes any kind of compromise so difficult to achieve. I hold my convictions about abortion precisely because of my Christian formation. My convictions so formed are therefore not universal principles that any “rational” person will share, “whatever his or her religion.” We all gain our intuitions of what is moral, our ethics and convictions, through a complex of traditions, and therefore narratives, that form us. Some traditions, narratives, and religions do not regard abortion as murder. Some traditions, narratives, and religions understand personhood to begin at birth. And some traditions, narratives, and religions offer various understandings about abortion, some of which are in conflict. Christianity is a good example of this latter tradition, narrative, religion.
Wolfe has adopted the Enlightenment’s liberal notion of universality as a criterion (perhaps the criterion) of what is moral. By accepting this notion, one has bought into the very rationale that provides for “autonomous individuals” to assert their “rights,” which is, of course, our culture’s premise in providing for abortions.
If we are to achieve a political compromise on abortion so that unborn lives will be saved, we will have to seek to truly understand why others disagree with us about the moral status of abortion. It is blind and unhelpful to think that “any person, whatever his or her religion,” should be able to see that abortion is an “unconscionable crime.”
Christopher Wolfe urges the pro-life movement to forget laws that ban all abortion and opt for those that exempt the “hard cases.” He assures us that this will “incrementally” lead to a ban on all abortion at some future date, whereas attempting to pass “pure” anti-abortion legislation will lead to all sorts of dire and terrible consequences.
But laws such as Wolfe proposes were on the books of most states in 1973, and they led not to a ban on all abortion but to abortion on demand . . . .
North Troy, VT
Both James Hunter and Christopher Wolfe shed some much-needed light on our abortion problem, but they do not offer a great deal of help. It is no doubt informative to be reminded that public opinion is diverse on the subject, and that with such widespread diversity compromise “for the time being” is indicated. But is not compromise for politicians? How can individuals make “moral” compromise without dire consequences? It appears to me that we have a sufficient number of individuals in this country making moral compromises on all manner of subjects without Hunter and Wolfe adding grease to the slippery slope of moral degradation. In many cases compromise only delays the agony (witness Wolfe’s reminder of Lincoln’s compromise on slavery) and in others unexpected and unanticipated results completely obliterate the good intended . . . . If we now compromise the moral position on abortion can we anticipate a backlash worse than the presumed gain? I wish we knew.
R. A. Hughes
Lake Stevens, WA
I have just finished reading the presentations of Messrs. Hunter and Wolfe on abortion. I continue to be amazed at the polite discourse.
Absent some reasonable scientific evidence that, (1) what resides in the uterus is other than a human being, and, (2) some event takes place in utero which transforms that being from whatever else it is into a human being, it seems to me to be a form of madness to attempt to declare that it is other than a human being.
If that is true, then to kill it is to kill a human being, which may quite reasonably be termed murder . . . .
John G. Gill
Getting Natural Law Right
While each of the contributors to your symposium on natural law (May) makes some valuable points, none of them gets the central issues quite right . . . .
Russell Hittinger agrees with Judge Bork that “ideology should have no place in constitutional interpretation,” and goes on to treat “activism” as the judicial sin of sins, worrying that natural law ideas might contribute to it. But without a lot more clarification, ideology is a cuss-word for other people’s political ideas, and activism for their attempts to put those ideas into practice. American judges have invoked and acted on larger political ideas from day one, nor could they have done otherwise in view of the way the Constitution is written.
William Bentley Ball tells us that Wisconsin v. Yoder was a reflection of the higher, natural law and Roe v. Wade of the lower, unnatural law. I agree with Mr. Ball in supporting Yoder and opposing Roe, but we need a lot more conceptual equipment to draw the distinction persuasively.
Judge Bork never tells us whence arises the obligation of judges to follow original intent rather than natural law. Not from original intent, surely, since that argument would be question-begging. It would also be self-destructive, since the one thing that is clear about the Framers and their constituents is their belief in the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” . . .
The root of the matter is an unreasonable expectation concerning natural law and other jurisprudential ideas of the same generality. All your writers assume that natural law (in Hittinger’s case ideology) translates quickly and easily into concrete judicial decisions, good or bad. But it is always a mistake to regard jurisprudential theories as machines for producing politically correct decisions, whether liberal or conservative (whatever these words mean these days). The role of natural law has rather been to remind conservatives and revolutionaries (and even the archfiend Justice Brennan), as they invoke it to advance their contradictory agendas, of a common humanity that limits conflict without abolishing it.
The contemporary idea of human rights plays the same role: indeed the two ideas are almost indistinguishable, apart from their differing ideological environments. I can say that abortion violates the natural law, or I can say that it violates human rights, but I should hate to be forced to defend one of these propositions while attacking the other.
Philip E. Devine
Kudos to Judge Bork for favoring his interlocutors with as generous a reception as jurisprudence can sponsor. “If logical reasoning is natural law,” Bork writes, “I hereby welcome it into the courtroom and wish that it were more frequently found there.” A lawyer—I do not want to say, a natural lawyer—could not ask for more.
But what is logical reasoning? The organon of legal logic includes both the law’s formal logic and the law’s material logic. Legal positivism, however, rejects material logic on the supposition that all logic is formal logic. The natural law tradition, by contrast, accepts both types of logic.
All logic studies consistency. Take person as a legal concept. The formal logic of law asks whether the concept person is deployed consistently, where the consistency in question resides between concepts—between the concept person and other concepts or between the concept person at time-1 and at time-2. This was Justice Taney’s approach in Dred Scott and Justice Blackmun’s approach in Roe.
By contrast, the material logic of law asks whether the concept person is used consistently, where the consistency in question resides between the concept and what-it-is that is being conceptualized—a living adult in Dred Scott, a developing fetus in Roe.
To respond, then, to Judge Bork’s reception of natural law as “logical reasoning”: Material logic is the logic of recognition. Had logical reasoning qua material-logical reasoning been “welcomed” by the Supreme Court at crucial junctures in its history, no living human body would have gone unrecognized as a person, not Mr. Scott and not the Roe fetus. The consistency between the concept person and what-it-is it conceptualizes—the consistency between the sign and what it signifies—would have ensured recognition.
I am well aware that Judge Bork finds it “a bit imperialistic to claim the field of logic for natural law.” But positive constitutional law, simply because it partakes of the natural law, makes the same claim.
John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
It is interesting to see Robert Bork criticized for his lack of regard for natural law. The principal justification for trusting democratic processes (as Bork does) starts with the assumption that natural law exists. It is then perfectly logical to argue that, if universal natural law does indeed exist, the laws enacted by the people are the best approximation of true natural law that we can have at any point in time. The proper remedy to presumed defects in the people’s understanding is an appeal to their reason rather than an appeal to a subjectively defined concept of natural law.
Further, when fundamental rights are established through judicial application of natural law rather than legislation, the rights become far less secure. The lack of a specific law declaring the right of the accused to be presumed innocent is a defect in the law, not in Bork’s philosophy, as the new “quota bill” will soon demonstrate.
The real question is who should decide what natural law is. To argue that some minority of superior thinkers can be identified and permanently appointed to do our discerning for us is to challenge the whole philosophical foundation of democracy. It is therefore not surprising that Bork’s critics refuse to engage him on this central question.
Baton Rouge, LA
Can it possibly be true, as Judge Bork says, that “the Constitution has nothing to say about abortion”? . . .
Non-expert though I am, I am not ready to [acquiesce] too quickly when I hear Judge Bork tell us that “the suggestion that the fetus has rights” under our Constitution is “incorrect,” thereby taking the issue of fetal rights away from the Supreme Court and relegating it to the realm of “moral debate and moral choice by the American people.” As a legal layman I ask, can the Supreme Court have any more fundamental issue to decide than to whom the rights of the Constitution—due process or any other—apply? . . .
Would any of us really want the issue of who is protected by the Constitution to be decided by majority vote? What if the majority were to come to consider certain classes of people to be chattel or less than human, and therefore unworthy of protection by the Constitution? . . . Can we conceive of such questions being turned over to the “moral debate” of the American people for settlement?
(The Rev.) Duane Litfin
First Evangelical Church
Debating School Choice
Can anything good come out of Berkeley? I’ll never ask that again, not after reading “School Choice as Simple Justice” by John E. Coons (April).
(The Rev.) Steve Odom
Palisades Community Church
We would like to commend John Coons for his excellent article. We believe, as parents, that choice in the education of our children is clearly an issue of religious liberty and public justice. And, as Baptists, we can share Coons’ frustration and puzzlement that this point is somehow neglected by those who should be school choice advocates . . . .
As a persecuted minority for several centuries, Baptists clearly stand out in the historical record as leaders in promoting issues of justice and religious freedom in America. And yet today, on what is (or should be) one of the most important issues facing American families, our impression is that much of the Baptist “leadership” is either strangely indifferent or openly hostile to the idea of educational choice. Indeed, when contemporary Baptist literature does mention the issue, it is often referred to with pejoratives such as “parochiaid,” etc . . . .
Richard and Pamela Sperbeck
John E. Coons’ assertions regarding school choice as a matter of “simple justice” could as easily be applied to the matter of how we finance higher education in America. As much or more than at the elementary and secondary level, our mechanisms for the financing of higher education subsidize disproportionately the education of the wealthy while allowing only a small measure of choice for the poor apart from a willingness on the part of the individual to greatly encumber oneself.
On the other hand, the continuing market viability of hundreds of small, independent, and not well-endowed colleges, often church-related, in the face of enormous and growing price disadvantage is relevant. It suggests that Coons’ proposal for wider choice in elementary and secondary education would, in fact, cause an enormous blossoming of vibrant alternatives to address the nation’s crisis in education. The success of America’s independent colleges, given the price differential, demonstrates that there is a more widespread concern among parents and students for quality and appropriate educational experiences than many would have one believe is the case . . . .
William E. Hamm
Forest City, IA
In his eloquent plea for parents’ right to choose the school for their children to attend, John E. Coons makes a whopping big assumption: that children necessarily have parents or families to make the choice for them.
In the inner city schools of my city, 60 to 80 percent of the children live with single parents or with no natural parents. The guardians of these children, so far as they exercise any choice at all, choose to keep them in the neighborhood, close to home. By court order, the system provides for majority-to-minority transfers. It would be easy enough for parents or guardians to move their children from these heavily segregated schools to others in more privileged areas. Only a very scanty number of inner-city children are making use of this provision, however, because there is no one, practically speaking, to make the choice for them. A simple system of free parental choice in our schools would leave these children more narrowly segregated and disadvantaged than ever.
I cannot support a system of parental choice until I know that such children as this have advocates who can get them what they need. That is a tall order. It requires a number of adults who know the child’s needs and talents, and who will try to persuade the child’s guardians to send him to the right school . . . .
William A. Lane
While agreeing with John Coons regarding choice, I do not agree with all his “operational criteria.” Bureaucracies possess an infinite capacity to make a mess of anything with which they become involved. Thus, maintaining the present public school system in any form would be a mistake. Overwhelming evidence indicates that private schools not only out-educate their public counterparts, but do it far less expensively. In my own state, there is a plethora of school districts, some with only one or two schools—the district where I live has three—each with a superintendent and his bureaucratic staff. There is another bureaucratic layer at the regional level with superintendent and staff. A third bureaucratic level exists at the state level . . . .
Until it can be demonstrated that a system freely permitting the co-existence of schools with widely divergent principles (e.g., some practicing an anti-intellectual Protestant fundamentalism, others emphasizing classical liberal arts study, and still others based upon an atheistic, value-free program with a hedonistic bent) will not be detrimental to American society, the prospects for true educational choice will remain dim. This is the primary obstacle to educational choice. As long as proponents of educational choice can be portrayed as sectarians opposed to existing society, the battle cannot be won.
T. Ross Valentine
John E. Coons replies:
I am greatly cheered by the insights of Steve Odom and the Sperbecks. If Berkeley can be rehabilitated, there surely is hope for the Baptists. In promoting school choice over the last generation I have found Baptist teachers and administrators (private and public) to be ambivalent. To challenge the traditional government monopoly seems to many of them an act of treason. On the other hand they concede that the public schools as presently constituted are agents not only of class, racial, and religious injustice but of simple ignorance. My present sense is that their perception of that disaster is moving them toward choice that includes public schools as one attractive option.
William Hamm’s proposal to extend choice to the university level is reminiscent of the GI Bill and is plausible, at least as applied to lower income students. However, since college is not compulsory and confers a substantial economic benefit on the graduate, I wonder whether it should ever be made “free.” I think of my own situation. Until now Berkeley has had very low tuition. Like every other student, two of my kids were in effect heavily subsidized, even though I could have paid. The subsidy comes in large part from taxes paid by workers and others who don’t use the university system. This seems unfair to me. Either the students should pay a fair price as they go, or they should pay later in adult life according to economic capacity and number of years at the university. This is, however, a complicated matter. Indeed, with all the subsidies and the freedom to select one’s university, higher education is already to a significant extent a system of choice.
In respect to William Lane’s very proper concerns, note first that very few children lack a legally responsible adult guardian even in the inner city. And single parents and grandparent guardians are definitely decision-makers. Of course most of them have never had the chance to choose among schools. Because of family poverty their children have been conscripted for the neighborhood school or bused elsewhere. Research shows that those inner-city parents who do manage to choose a school are perfectly clear about what they want. It is also plain that most other parents covet the opportunity to choose and to exercise responsibility just like those few who have been lucky.
Now, if the few inner-city parents who do get to choose do not typically bus their children to public schools in the suburbs, there may be good reasons. The really distinctive choices available may lie in the private sector, but court orders have not included such schools, and the parents can’t afford to pay their modest tuition. In these circumstances would full choice worsen the segregation by race? The situation in Kansas City may suggest the answer. There private schools are the only schools that are willing and able to give integrated education—at one-third the costs of the public schools. Over four thousand integrated places go empty, because the judge will not include private schools in the remedy. Nor is Kansas City in any way unique. Imagine what a full-scale scholarship would do for the integration of the children of Washington’s all-black system into the public schools of Virginia and Maryland and accessible private schools in and out of the District.
Finally, Ross Valentine has the correct premise about the public school bureaucracy. The conclusion to draw is that in a market these schools either will reform or perish. They should be allowed to try simply because many parents say that they want their children in a school operated by a public entity. If they do want this, they should have it.
Regarding Mr. Valentine’s second point, clearly we do need to educate the media and the public to two truths: (1) The public school curriculum is and must remain largely void of interesting moral and political content; it is necessarily biased in favor of noncommitment and thus is as sectarian in its peculiar way as any other curriculum. (2) A market of ideas embodied in freely chosen schools with distinctive curricula is the way to serve the highest values of the free speech guarantee. Maybe we cannot convince our fellow citizens of the truth of these two propositions, but we must try.
Good and Evil
“Naming of Good and Evil” by Joyce A. Little (May) should not go unremarked as one of the clearest statements of the Christian sacramental view of reality and its practical working out in the modern age that I have encountered since I began to read C.S. Lewis on the subject nearly twenty years ago.
Although there are many biblical references that obviously take into account and even explicitly state what Dr. Little describes, I have been drawn lately to the description of faith in the “Faith Chapter,” Hebrews 11, where St. Paul makes the sacramental view of reality a result of faith: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Hebrews 11:3) What could be more illustrative biblically of Dr. Little’s argument? . . .
I am a Protestant (Anglican) so my mind turns directly to the scriptural foundations of what Dr. Little so beautifully elucidates. I assure you that does not mean I cannot be drawn into a thorough appreciation of the reality that Dr. Little describes. In fact, I am convinced that it is the only argument that stands up against the modern feminist view.
Marcia B. Petty
As a charter subscriber to First Things, a subscriber to National Review, and a conservative Catholic, I was much perturbed by your editorial in the May issue “The Year that Conservatism Turned Ugly.” When I first read the title, I assumed that you were going to decry the name-calling that has taken place among conservatives this past year. Instead, you elected to join in the fray.
The editorial follows upon the letter to NR, signed by two editors of FT plus eleven other individuals, protesting NR's expressly “tactical” endorsement of Pat Buchanan in the New Hampshire Republican primary (NR, 3/16/92). At the end of the editorial, you identify by association such endorsement with the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, black power agitators, third worldists, Gore Vidal, and Murray Rothbard and his fellow paleos in the John Randolph Society. That is ugly! It is also very surprising coming from the distinguished editors of FT, a number of whom I have come to respect and appreciate from reading their books. What happened?
The origins of the problem go back to your editorial in the March issue, “Christians, Jews, and Anti-Semitism.” I thought that editorial to be fine as it was, although somewhat vague and excessively worried over an alleged rise of anti-Semitism in America. You define an anti-Semite as “someone who declares that certain vices and character flaws are specifically Jewish, and who would deny to Jews rights and privileges readily accorded to others.” That probably is as good as any definition previously proposed. You then commence ruminating on “restoring” the taboo against anti-Semitism, on Jews and the secularization of the public square, and then on . . . Israel. With little apparent connection to what was previously discussed, you propose that “to care about Jews and Judaism is to care about Israel . . . to care about Israel is to take care not only that Israel survive but that Israel flourish.”
Still, so far, so good. However, what does it mean for Israel to flourish? This would seem to be a matter of prudential judgment. Some of us believe that what presently blocks the flourishing of Israel is that it is losing its moral soul from years of being at war with its neighbors and ruling over a substantial foreign population which it cannot assimilate; that its economy is becoming that of a third world country due to socialist inefficiencies; and that its political constitution prevents decisive majority decision because any government organized by one of the two major parties is hostage to whatever extremist fringe parties are part of the governing coalition. Israel is able to avoid making the hard decisions that must be made for it to survive and flourish by the United States’ substantial subsidizing of the status quo in Israel . . . .
Instead of acting as a forum to encourage and increase the dialogue between Christians and Jews on matters of mutual concern, you condemn any and all who do not agree with your collective judgment as to what constitutes caring about Israel, Jews, and Judaism in today’s changing circumstances. Of course, you are always free to criticize those with whom you disagree. That is one of the purposes of a public square in a democracy. However, the way you criticize serves only to close off any further dialogue . . . .
Perhaps what happened is that you all have lost control as a result of working under too much stress. That alone can explain your statement that the John Randolph Society and its members will “very likely” be an important factor in the conservative movement in the years ahead. Are you kidding? Only in the sense that David Duke became a national political actor as a result of the attention lavished upon him by the liberal press. Anyone who really believes that collection of wacko academics, Southern agrarians, unrespectables, and misfits is going to be listened to by a substantial number of conservatives throughout America needs to take a long vacation away from Manhattan Island or the Washington Beltway . . . . Get out and see the country, and you will discover that conservatives who do not live in New York or Washington are not all racists, nativists (whatever that may mean), paranoid conspiratorialists, or anti-Semites, as you seem to fear.
Thomas M. Cannon
As a Christian, I consider Christian anti-Semitism an oxymoron. That it has existed, and exists, I cannot deny. Anti-Semitism is one of the many heresies and aberrant beliefs that have arisen over the past two millennia, invariably out of ignorance or misinterpretation of holy writ. Anti-Semitism is neither orthodox, nor inherent in the New Testament text. Quite the contrary. . . .
The usual proof texts cited to impute anti-Semitic attitudes are taken out of context from the writings of Paul. Now one might expect him—apostle or not—to have negative attitudes about the Jewish leadership after having been stoned once and flogged to the point of death on five separate occasions for preaching Christ. And he did. But I don’t think any fair-minded individual can read Paul’s dissertation on the relations between Jew, Christian, and the Covenant in Romans 9-11 without concluding that anti-Semitism is no more acceptable an option to the Christian than cannibalism or ritual prostitution. During much of the Middle Ages, neither laity nor clergy read much of either Testament; their legacy of anti-Semitism tells us more about biblical illiteracy than about orthodox Christian belief. Anti-Semitism is very much the shame of the anti-Semite, but it is neither required nor permitted by New Testament Christianity.
Giving Demagoguery A Bad Name
Congratulations to Edward S. Shapiro for his review (June/July) placing Hillel Levine’s Death of an American Jewish Community into the correct context, which is Levine’s own strident and intellectually shoddy public career. In his pseudo-prophetic stance, Levine has given sloganeering demagoguery a bad name. Any rabbi of the area at the time will attest that Roxbury and Dorchester in the early 1960s were already decaying, aging, disintegrating; the grandparents stayed, the children got out. Shapiro is right to insist that Levine has turned into grist for the emotional left the normal, if unhappy, result of social change. If any social engineers bear the shame, they will be found, as Shapiro says, on the left.
University of South Florida
Bernard Nathanson may have a way with words and a good vocabulary, but he demonstrates that his understanding of the careful nuance of conservative evangelical Presbyterian thought is woefully wanting in his review “Koop De Grâce” (April). Much worse than this, Nathanson makes himself guilty of the crimes of which he accuses Koop—namely “savaging certain elements of the pro-life movement.”
C. Everett Koop’s tenure in office may be described in many ways, but saying that Koop has been “turned into swine for his trouble” for his years of distinguished service as our nation’s Surgeon-General is unfair and false. Contrary to Nathanson’s claims, Koop’s coming to the position of the nation’s number one doctor was no “lust for a post in the federal department of Health and Human Services” by a “trusting naif” following his “ambitious lights.” Rather, Koop was simply responding to a call to serve in the same way that he responded to the call of the hungry homeless men at the 12th Street Gospel Hall or the students at the Wayside Gospel Mission. Koop’s response to the call should be seen as an honest willingness to serve. It would certainly have been much safer and easier for him to continue on in his distinguished practice and shirk the call to the lion’s den of Beltway political life. But Koop is a man of principle and he does not look for the easy or safe way out, and on this score Nathanson has misunderstood Koop’s most basic motivations . . . .
Nathanson rather vaguely suggests that Koop failed to acknowledge the “epidemiological truism” that the way to curb AIDS was “the curbing of the behavior in question.” Nathanson wisely does not pursue this suggestion any further, as there is little place he could have gone with it. What was Dr. Koop supposed to do, round up the entire homosexual community along with every promiscuous heterosexual and throw them in jail? There is little that can be done from this angle. It was much more realistic to warn the people at risk and recommend abstinence (as did Dr. Koop’s letter that went out to every American household) and failing that, let them know that the use of a condom offered some substantial (but not fail-safe) protection . . . .
In many ways Dr. Nathanson’s article epitomizes what is wrong with the pro-life movement today. Instead of directing his considerable talents and energies toward the real enemy, Dr. Nathanson has chosen to spend time fighting an internecine battle. He is way off base in his criticism of a sophisticated pro-life activist who happens to have a different (and perhaps more full-orbed and nuanced) worldview. And until the pro-life movement recognizes that there is a serious need for coalition building, the movement will remain fractured, weak, and at less than full strength, while the killing goes on and on.
Douglas E. Fox
Bernard Nathanson replies :
I am grateful to Mr. Fox for his insightful comments regarding my recent review of Dr. C. Everett Koop’s autobiography (autohagiography?). In response, I should like to set forth these observations:
(a) Far from “savaging certain elements of the pro-life movement” (is Dr. Koop an element, sui generis?), I have attempted only to limn a number of disturbing contradictions and inconsistencies in his account of his watch. If Koop felt an irresistible call to serve, why try to muscle his way into the national spotlight in a gaudy attire more suitable to a Marxist (Groucho, not Karl) opera-bouffe than to a simple soul wanting only to spend his remaining years in the service of the poor and the helpless? Calcutta beckons (Jerry Brown did it); the 12th Street Gospel Hall—as its moral equivalent—is still there, waiting. Or whatever.
(b) If I implied that Dr. Koop has been turned into a swine or into a Beltway Borgia in his Capitol days, I am most heartily sorry. It was a clumsy literary device stemming from the fifteenth episode of Joyce’s Ulysses (out of Homer) and was not meant to be taken literally. Circe’s den (read Washington, D.C. here) was a place of temptation where the less attractive side of humans bloomed (no Joycean pun intended), and a lengthy sojourn in the corridors of power has been known to do remarkably unattractive things to men (and women).
(c) To claim that I would have had Koop jail every homosexual in the U.S. in some misguided effort to curb the AIDS epidemic is a feckless accusation that I categorically reject. Rather than pushing condoms as the panacea for control of the epidemic, Dr. Koop was obliged (my own ipsedixitism) to insist on the (Charles) Krauthammerian ethic: reveal or refrain. HIV is spread from one person to another, and the only acceptable behavior on the part of those infected is to inform the sex partner before the fact-or refrain from the infecting act. Condom advocacy was—and is—an implicit seal of approval not only for homosexual activity, but for all high-risk sexual performance: if you give me a loaded gun, I guess you want me to shoot someone.
(d) Finally, far from spending my time in interminable internecine bickering I have consistently attempted to hold myself above such counterproductive activity. I am no member of any of the multiple factions, dissident splinter groups, powerhouse organizations, or other fissiparous forces in the pro-life movement. But to fail to render an honest opinion in re Koop in the interests of preserving the appearance of unity would be, well, kooping out.
Mr. Fox, to paraphrase a great American (Satchel Paige), go very light on the vices such as carrying on in the politics of pro-life: the political ain’t restful.
Diane Bonds’ “By the Road South of Fairplay, Georgia” (June/July) is one of the most beautiful and touching poems I have ever read. It is best described by an expression common in the South: “It tore me up.”