Is the fight to protect the unborn as misguided”and ultimately as passing”as the push for Prohibition? So suggested David Frum in a recent column for CNN. After I objected to his column , Frum said that I, along with all pro-life advocates, should be willing to accept a regime where abortion is safe, legal and rare :
Yet heres the point for Mr. Schmitz: the only way to get to a broader national consensus about the morality of abortion is to put an end to the culture war over abortion as symbolized by the demand for the punishment of abortion.
Frum apparently believes that the pro-life movement is committed to putting vulnerable women in jail. But this simply is not the case. Many prominent pro-life advocates have made clear their opposition to any such punitive regime. Ramesh Ponnuru, for example, has proposed stripping people who commit abortions of medical licenses and imposing steep fines on people who commit them without licenses.
Frum goes on to claim that we only can achieve a pro-life consensus after pro-lifers stop insisting on banning the procedure. But this would undercut itself practically because of its logical incoherence. Why would we ever want abortion to be minimized unless we believed it to be a grave injustice?
Frum also thinks that political opposition to abortion will decrease as abortion rates decline. Theres some plausibility to this. After all, opposition to abortion runs the highest in communities where it is more prevalent. But as Michael J. New of the Witherspoon Institute has extensively documented , abortion rates have declined largely because of pro-life political efforts to restrict its availability. If Americans want to see fewer abortions, they should support pro-life political reforms.
The reason Frum wants the pro-life movement to fade away is that he believes the issue is tearing apart the Republican party. But today some 68 percent of Republicans identify as pro-life. Compare that to the 65 percent of Republicans who think the Iraq war was worth fighting, 54 percent who disagree with the GOP leaderships no new taxes line (favoring increases on the wealthiest Americans), and 60 percent of Republican voters who disagree with their leadership on free trade, saying that it has been bad for the country.
When weighed against other issues, the pro-life consensus among Republican voters is actually remarkably strong. Nor is pro-life support narrowly confined to the Republican party. Americans on the whole have been tipping, however slowly, in a pro-life direction. Democrats are more closely divided over the issue”with 32 percent identifying as pro-life”than are their Republican counterparts.
As Gallup said after conducting a poll on the issue, it does not matter whether Republican candidates make their case at a $1,000-a-plate dinner in Ohio, a down-home picnic in New Hampshire, or to college Republicans”the audience would likely be sympathetic to a pro-life message.
The most intriguing of Frums suggestions is that the fight over abortion has been fueled by worries over the role of women in the same way that Prohibition gained steam from anti-Catholic sentiment. (Remember rum, Romanism, and ruin?) Frum suggests that as we become more comfortable with a new ideal of womanhood, one formed in the wake of the many feminist waves, abortion will lose its salience as a marker of different cultural outlooks. After we reach a new dispensation more comfortable with both women’s equality to men and their differences from men”disagreements over abortion will come to matter less.
Frum may well be right, but what if that new dispensation is a pro-life one? If anything, the cooling of fights over feminism has given more room for young women to express pro-life views without embracing social conservatism wholesale. The future of American feminism may look a lot more like Meghan McCain and Bristol Palin”pro-life but supportive of things like same-sex marriage or contraception”than it does like Betty Friedan.
We are often encouraged to think of moral or social issues as emotional and private whereas issues like raising taxes or cutting benefits are rational and universal. Numbers are real, but our basic beliefs”those first things”somehow arent. Or, at least, they are not seen as quite so urgent.
One reason that political elites like to decry partisan divisions and advocate a kind of beyondism”a politics free of faith, ideology, or popular resentment”is that a principled politics always contains the threat of radicalism. By appealing to unchanging ideals, one implicitly challenges the apparently neutral and non-ideological status quo. Liberals, progressives, conservatives, communists: Americans of all stripes have long appealed to basic beliefs, including religious ones, when advocating for reform. Thus there is a kind of covert conservatism in the derision of some issues as merely moral or social.
This is not to say there are no real reasons for Frums concerns. We desperately need to boost GDP, reform entitlements, and chart a responsible foreign policy. It is understandable that Americans would be wary of any political issue that could distract us from those goals. But moral issues cannot be disentangled from other political matters. A nation that fails to recognize the right of the unborn to life will have less trouble saddling future generations with debt. At the heart of every political community is our ideal of solidarity with our fellow citizens, which is based on our recognition of their rights and personhood. Respect for life is not simply the product of any private religious concern or reactionary sentiment. It stands at the core of all our political concerns.
Matthew Schmitz is Deputy Editor of First Things . You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewschmitz .