Democrats, Obama, and Abortion: Turning Liberalism Incoherent

 
 

Can the Democratic Party's awkward position on infanticide and abortion be regarded as simply a lesser matter in an ensemble of "other issues" of higher standing? Or does that position challenge the very coherence of everything else that a liberal party proclaims itself to be?

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[Recently, Professor Hadley Arkes delivered a public lecture at Amherst College on Barack Obama's opposition to the Illinois version of the Born-Alive Infants' Protection Act. Arkes was the author of the national bill, shaped as the "most modest first step on abortion"--the move simply to preserve the life of the child who survived an abortion. His lecture elicited a critical editorial from the student newspaper, the Amherst Student, defending Obama. Arkes wrote in response, correcting the mistakes in the editorial, and showing that Obama did in fact take the side of infanticide. He then invited three of his most thoughtful students on the other side--three liberal Democrats--to join three of the pro-life students on campus for an intimate dinner to have a serious conversation about the issue. The students were connected by ties of friendship and respect, but deeply divided on the question of abortion and its place in the ensemble of issues in the presidential campaign. This group could have a conversation quite different from the "conversation" that would take place in a larger group, with theatrics and a light show. Following the dinner, Arkes received a long letter from one of the pro-choice students, wanting to hold to his position. Arkes wrote back, and the following is drawn from that letter.--Ed]

Dear Josh:

I return in the end to Aaron [another student at the dinner]. He was thoughtful enough, honest enough, to recognize that Obama's position on the Born-Alive Infants' Protection Act did indeed come down to this: that so committed is he to preserving that right to abortion unimpaired, unrestricted, that he is willing even to withdraw the protections of the law from children born alive. That is, infanticide outright. That notion no longer shocks because it represents what truly has become the liberal principle on the issue that has become for my old party the central and defining issue. It is the anchor of rights of sexual freedom, the domain of privacy that means the most to the members of the party. But the result, as Aaron recognizes, is that to be a Democrat and liberal now is to accept the notion that there is no wrong in infanticide. Or to put it another way, Democrats are now prepared to say, "Yes Infanticide R Us. But it is, in the scale of things, no big deal. Or at least not a 'deal-breaker."'

I gather that the liberals might be willing to protect the child at some point, but they cannot offer us a coherent account that incorporates in any way a respect for the life of the child. Perhaps the loss of the child will make the parents unhappy, and so we act to avoid the unhappiness of the parents, not out of respect for the child. For as Aaron recognized, there is no principle that would protect the child that would not also come into play to protect the very same child, the very same human, months and years earlier, even when she is in the womb.

As you may recall, in my talk the other night I drew, as an analogy, the complaint made by the historian J. G. Randall over the performance of Lincoln and Douglas during their famous debates in 1858. His complaint was about the unwarranted prominence that these two men were willing to give to that vexing moral issue of slavery. His condemnation ran in this way:

With all the problems that might have been put before the people as proper matter for their consideration in choosing a senator--choice of government servants, immigration, the tariff, international policy, promotion of education, west ward extension of railroads, the opening of new lands for homesteads, protection against greedy exploitation of those lands. . . encouragement to settlers . . . improving the condition of factory workers, and alleviating those agrarian grievances that were to plague the coming decades--with such issues facing the country, those two candidates for the Senate talked as if there were only one issue.

That complaint, read today, is bound to strike readers as churlish, even oafish. And yet why? Is it wrong because we have come to regard that issue now, in our own day, as one we happen to care about? Or is it because there was truly something more fundamental in that question of just who were those beings who were the objects of concern in all of these other issues? As I argued, the issue had to run back to the root of things, to what John Paul II crystallized as the question of "the human person": Who, after all, are the persons whose injuries count as we scan the landscape and notice injuries or injustices that call out for remedies at the hands of the law?

I don't think you've quite appreciated what a challenge that question offers to the coherence of the liberal position on everything else that liberals now profess to stand for. Take any issue. Are you concerned about people losing their homes to foreclosure? People losing their jobs in the financial turmoil? Well, can you explain just why any of these people should elicit our concern? You don't know much about them except that they are humans. But you know exactly the same thing about the child in the womb. If the hurts and pains suffered by these people somehow matter, how would you explain why the pains suffered in abortion do not matter? (As Judge Casey managed to establish, in the case on partial-birth abortion in New York, the people doing the grisly partial-birth abortions, puncturing the skull of the child, with her legs dangling, never thought of even using an anesthetic.) If the loss of a job or a home matters, why not the loss of a life? You yourself said that the loss of Iraqis lives is just as serious as the loss of American lives. Apparently, you've backed into the critical premise that "all men are created equal"; that all human lives (I take it) have a claim to our concern. Well, then what? If you mean "all," then why are 1.2 million lives taken in this country each year in abortions somehow worth less, with less of a claim to your concern, than the thousands, or even scores of thousands, lost in the war?

This is a problem for liberalism. I was a liberal and a Democrat years ago, but this issue turned me, for it has to call into question everything that a liberal would claim under the name of liberalism. With this matter of abortion, the liberals have backed themselves into the old principle of the Rule of the Strong. Those who have power over others are more real than the ones who are at the mercy of their power. The interests of the strong, in this setting, claim precedence over the interests of the weak. Step by step liberals have stripped themselves of any claim to be the party of liberal generosity, expanding the circle of those who are protected. It has happened so subtly that people may not be aware of it any longer. But now we look up--as Aaron looked up--and say, in candor, Yes, that is who we are, and what we have become. We cannot tell you any longer, as Democrats and liberals, that we reject infanticide, because we cannot reject it without calling into question that which we have come to care about more than we care about anything else.

I take Aaron to have it exactly right. And so the question I'd put in turn is: How can you stand there and tell me that you are a "liberal"--and more deeply, How can you possibly give a coherent account of yourself?

That was the question really before us last night. That was a fine beginning for the conversation, and if you are serious about having that conversation, I'm open. I do have to break away now. But let me say again, I don't love ya any the less for what you've said in the course of this conversation, but love ya all the more for your willingness--and your respect for your friends gathered around you--to enter the conversation in the first place.

Hadley Arkes is Edward Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College. The author of many books, including Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, Arkes sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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