Tucked away in the back of last week’s New York Review of Books , Michael Sandel and Thomas Nagel partook in an exchange on liberalism and abortion rights , itself in response to Nagel’s review (subscription necessary) of Sandel’s latest book.
A nonreligious anti-Rawlsian, Sandel insists there is no neutral ground when it comes to the rights of the unborn: "To rest the case for abortion rights on the claim that the Catholic position is false is not to ‘bracket’ the underlying moral issue, but to answer it."
Notwithstanding their claim to be neutral on the moral status of the fetus, liberals cannot defend the right to abortion without implicitly denying that the fetus is a person. For consider: if the Catholic doctrine were correct¯if the fetus were morally equivalent to a child¯then even the important principle of the woman’s right to choose would be morally outweighed by the importance of respecting human life.
Exactly. And, as Sandel demonstrates, mere common sense is sufficient to arrive at his conclusion. None of this, however, stops Nagel from trying to find a "Catholic" way of protecting abortion.
If someone is really convinced on religious grounds that abortion is as bad as killing a child, the requirement of equal respect for his fellow citizens may be incapable of persuading him that he should refrain from imposing that conviction by law on others who do not share it. In that case the liberal argument for abortion rights would have reached its limit with him. Fortunately many opponents of abortion hold more nuanced views, including perhaps those Catholics who defend the legal right to abortion while holding that abortion is morally wrong.
"Fortunately" or unbelievably? To state the obvious: There is nothing liberal or consistent about valuing a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy over the right of what is believed to be another person’s right to live. Even Nagel must admit this.
For a provocative article on the compatibility of Rawlsianism and Catholic morality, keep an eye out for "Public Morality, Public Reason" by Robert P. George in the forthcoming November issue of First Things .
John Rose is an assistant editor at First Things .