I’m not sure we’re giving Jeffrey Hart his due. The book chapter he published in the Wall Street Journal , in which he advised conservatives to surrender to the irreversible fact of Roe v. Wade , has received a number of powerful corrections on the blog of the New Criterion , together with Richard John Neuhaus’ observations here at F IRST T HINGS .
As it happens, Hart is mistaken on several levels, beginning with the pure practicalities of politics. The Republicans’ adoption of the pro-life cause was one of the great moves in American political history. It may have been more forced upon the GOP than chosen by the party’s elders: A sharp political observer in 1973 could have predicted that the Roe decision would eventually create one anti-abortion party and one pro-abortion party, and the Democrats’ headlong rush into support for abortion left the awkward Republicans, by default, the party for pro-lifers. But the pro-life party it more or less became, and in the years since, the Republicans have done significantly better in congressional elections.
It’s true that the current Republican Congress has hardly acted in a conservative way on government spending and a variety of other issues. But that’s nothing compared to the way the Democrats would have behaved. The day the party abandons its pro-life platform is the day the pro-lifers stay home on election day¯and the Democrats start to win again. Is this what Jeffrey Hart wants? The decadent luxury of a purer, though powerless, party?
And yet, Hart has stumbled onto the track of something true about the relation of conservatism and the pro-life cause. We seem to need to go through this kind of brouhaha every so often, if only to get the argument straight once again. Years ago, William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review , was being bombarded by the British literary critic Kenneth Tynan with a set of creaky old Communist contentions¯until Phillips finally complained (in a line that became famous in neoconservative circles) that the arguments were so old he couldn’t remember the answers. All he remembered is that they had gotten answered, and we had moved on.
Well, in the same way, we long ago moved on from Jeffrey Hart’s sort of argument against the abortion struggle. His recent attempts to relate his point to the uproar over F IRST T HINGS ’ 1996 symposium on judicial power, "The End of Democracy?," are a little strange: Though it took a while, the magazine eventually won that particular fight, and the whole of the conservative world, including Hart himself, now agrees that the immodesty of judges is one of the central political problems of our time.
The better parallel is "The Conservative Case for Abortion," a 1995 cover story in the New Republic in which the now-faded Jerry Z. Muller made a utilitarian argument that "the right-to-life position undermines the fundamentally conservative effort to strengthen families." As I wrote at the time, it may be true, as Muller suggested, that "conservatives have long assumed government should promote those social norms that encourage the creation of decent men and women," but conservatives have long assumed as well that decent men and women don’t murder their young. I can’t recall all the answers we made to Muller back in those days. I remember, though, that he got answered, and we moved on.
Still, Jerry Muller’s conservative embrace of abortion was useful at the time, in the same way Jeffrey Hart’s is now. One of the primary works of the pro-life movement has been the long, slow assembling of the intellectual argument against the killing of the unborn (a point made well by Slate.com ‘s William Saletan in his interesting 2003 book Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War ). And these occasional outbreaks of conservative disenchantment with the pro-life movement help us remember the intricacies of that argument¯and its relation to deep structures of politics.
So, let’s think for a moment about the argument against abortion. Jeffrey Hart has always been a sentimentalist in his conservatism rather than an intellectual, which is to say that, despite his professorial learning, he has always believed in a conservative sentiment rather than a conservative idea . And he is right, I think, that there is something potentially antithetical to conservative sentiment in opposition to abortion after more than thirty years of the Roe regime.
Responsible political opinion runs only in a narrow range, from the liberal certainty that freedom is worth its risks to the conservative intuition that civilization is worth its costs. Everything beyond these boundaries is radical and irresponsible, in one way or another¯usually in a denial that there actually are any risks to freedom or costs to civilization. At the furthest philosophical levels of political theory, and at the most immediate practical levels of political campaigning, responsible American conservatism is still associated with the intellectual argument against abortion (particularly in the way it has expounded the role of natural law in a modern democracy).
But we shouldn’t forget that at certain middle levels of ordinary analysis, the association of conservatism and opposition to abortion is happenstance, an accident of the way politics and the intellectual life have played out over the last few decades. "Let justice be done though the heavens fall" is a conservative sentiment only in a world so radically disordered that no one but a conservative believes there is such a thing as justice anymore. And though "Let justice be done though the heavens fall" is not Jeffrey Hart’s conservative feeling about the preservation of civilization, it is, I believe, the deep sense of the pro-life movement.
Indeed, were opposition to abortion primarily a political sentiment, it would look like this: If you are not moved to apocalyptic imagination by the abortion slaughter¯if you do not feel, in some deep place, that a fire is kindled by those children’s deaths, which shall burn unto the lowest hell and consume the earth with its increase¯then you are not serious in the pro-life cause. If you have not weighed all means for attempting to halt these murders, including forms of civil disobedience that could damage the nation, then you are not honest in your rejection of abortion. If the Constitution forever guarantees the killing of unborn children, as the Supreme Court claimed, then we live under a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.
Hart is surely right that this shares little of the conservative temperament. Fortunately, the modern pro-life movement in the United States is not dominated by its sentiment, in the political sense of the word. Its commitments remain instead radically above and below all that: a philosophical belief in the dignity of the human person asserted by Western civilization and (very approximately) embodied in the American experiment, on the one hand, and a practical association with mostly Republican politicians, on the other hand.
This looks like sufficient conservatism to me. But give Jeffrey Hart his due: If conservatism is fundamentally a political sentiment, a temperament that accepts and defends the world as given, then the pro-life position now, three decades after Roe v. Wade , is not conservative but radical.