In 1860 the Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, endorsed a plan for compensated emancipation. Under this plan the government would purchase slaves for the purpose of setting them free. It seemed, initially, like a brilliant political solution. The country had endured decades of bickering over whether black Americans were fully human, and, if they were human, whether they were entitled to the same legal rights as the rest of Americans. Lincoln believed he had found a way to bring abolitionists and slavery advocates together, respecting everyone’s point of view and ending the partisan divisions, while at the same time reducing slavery and perhaps someday bringing it to an end.
In 2009 the Democratic Party, now led by another president from Illinois, endorsed a similar plan to help heal the partisan wounds of one of the great political battles of our time. After decades of intense debate over the humanity and rights of the unborn, it has been proposed that we should leave this argument behind us and unite behind an agenda of abortion reduction. The two pillars of this agenda are expanded access to contraceptives in our schools and an expansion of the social safety net for mothers in poverty.
Not long ago on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade , President Obama pronounced: No matter what our views, we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies [and] reduce the need for abortion. The promise, once again, is that we will move beyond a polarizing issue that divides us and cooperate to create a better world. Unfortunately, the proposal is deeply flawed both principally and practically, and the promise is as empty now as the promise of compensated emancipation was in 1860.
With the support of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, the newly strengthened Democratic majority in Congress has introduced several pieces of legislation to promote the Presidents abortion-reduction plan. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has personally introduced the Prevention First Act to funnel more federal dollars to family-planning groups.
Pro-life advocates across the nation have objected that this agenda does nothing to address the flaw in our legal system that currently denies basic human rights to unborn children. Their integrity has been questioned, their intelligence has been denied, and they have been frequently berated for using abortion as a wedge issue, but even the promise of bipartisan cooperation and the chance to save thousands of lives has not persuaded millions of American to give up their hopes of securing legal rights for the unborn.
Lincoln faced a similar problem. It might have been expected that abolitionists would eagerly seize the opportunity for federal assistance in the freeing of slaves. But Frederick Douglass wrote that the idea was absurd, preposterous, and Heaven-insulting. Douglass was joined in his criticism by other black abolitionists and the majority of their white colleagues. Promoting his plan to Southern congressman, Lincoln explained that such a proposition on the part of the general government sets up no claim of a right by federal authority to interfere with slavery . . . . It is proposed as a matter of perfectly free choice. It was precisely this free choice, this complete failure of principle, which the abolitionists could not accept.
The federal government never implemented the Republican plan for compensated emancipation, but several individuals in the North took up the cause as a private matter. Despite the objections of men like Douglass, these northerners believed that the practical advantages of helping the slaves they were purchasing outweighed the principled concerns of the absolute abolitionists.
Unfortunately, as often happens when principles are ignored for the sake of practicality, there were horrendous practical side effects to these private attempts at compensated emancipation. After escaping from slavery himself, Henry Bibb argued in his newspaper Voice of the Fugitive that a great mistake has been made here in the north, by purchasing the freedom of fugitive slaves. It has only served to stimulate the hunt for fugitives. While emancipated compensation undoubtedly improved the conditions for the slave who was purchased, it hurt the abolitionist cause as a whole.
Comprehensive sex education (i.e., the promotion of contraceptives through schools) can be similarly counterproductive. For years family planning groups have steadfastly denied any link between access to contraceptives and increased sexual activity in teenagers and, therefore, increased teenage pregnancy. In 2004, however, a study presented to the Royal Economic Society and reported in The Times (London) conclusively demonstrated what any parent with an ounce of common sense could have predicted. Government programs for expanding contraceptive services [to schoolchildren] . . . encouraged sexual behavior. Dr. David Paton, the author of the study, observed that teenage sexual behavior appears to be little different to other fields in at least one important respect: Incentives matter to teenagers too.
Contraception undoubtedly decreases the chances of an individual act of intercourse leading to an abortion, but the increased promiscuity resulting from comprehensive sex education can lead to the death of even more unborn children. A recent study published in the Australian Journal of Public Health showed that 70 percent of women seeking abortions were using contraception at the time they conceived. That number may seem high to those who are not familiar with the published failure rates for contraception, but it is actually not very surprising. Nor is it surprising that the abortion rate climbed in the United States every single year from 1973 to 1990, when it peaked, even as contraception became more widely available.
Actually, to say the abortion rate climbed is a dramatic understatement. The number of abortions each year exploded from just over 615,000 to nearly 1.5 million. But one thing that grew faster than the abortion rate was the size of our social safety net. Total annual social welfare expenditures were close to $250 billion in 1973, but by 1990 they had quadrupled to slightly over one trillion dollars. In a recent Newsweek article George Weigel observed that Sweden, with a much thicker social safety net than the United States, has precisely the same rate (25 percent) of abortions per pregnancy as America.
All in all, there is an abysmal lack of evidence to support the idea that any part of the abortion-reduction agenda will actually reduce abortion.
Compensated emancipation was used successfully in many countries when it was implemented alongside the banning of slavery. Financial aid for unplanned pregnancies may also be a wise policy when implemented alongside the banning of abortion. But to attempt simply to substitute the former for the latter is not only unprincipled but also impractical.
This is not to say that no incremental progress can be made before abortion is once again made illegal. The abolitionists saved thousands from slavery by limiting the slave trade and fighting to keep slavery out of the border states. Parental consent laws, mandatory waiting periods, bans on specific procedures, and laws to protect doctors with conscientious objections have all been shown to reduce abortions and save lives. These are means that should be pursued by anyone who truly wishes to reduce the number of abortions, especially since they do not undermine the fundamental principals at stake.
Ultimately, of course, limiting atrocities is insufficient. To be true to itself this nation has had to return, over and over again, to the fact that we are all created equal. However inconvenient it might be for abortionists or plantation owners, the founders of our nation insisted that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to both life and liberty. Neither of these rights can be left a matter of free choice. For, as the founders explained, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.
James Kerian is a member of the Board of Directors of the North Dakota Family Alliance.