Recent debates have centered on the question of when an otherwise “pro-life” voter is morally justified in voting for a “pro-choice” candidate. The question amounts to asking when is it fair—that is, just—to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate. The answer depends on applying the Golden Rule.

Let me explain. The “pro-life” position consists, basically, of these two propositions. First, that people begin at conception, so that to kill anyone from conception onwards is to kill a human person. Second, that it is wrong—morally wrong—to intentionally kill any innocent person. Neither proposition is about religious faith. No one needs religious faith to see and to say that both of these propositions are true. You can figure out when people begin, for example, by reflecting philosophically on scientific facts about human reproduction and development. And you can figure out that killing is wrong by reflecting upon the basic principles of justice—the natural law—which, at least according to Saint Paul, is inscribed upon your heart. Or you can consult almost any secular or religious moral code, or almost any society’s civil law—including our own.

It won’t do to say that one is “pro-life” because one views abortion with profound misgivings, or because one regrets that so many abortions occur and that the law should work to make it more rare, or because abortion is, in some sense, wrong and evil. Abortion is all these things. But abortion is much more than all these things. In an abortion someone who has the same right not to be killed that everyone else has, is killed. So abortion isn’t just an unfortunate event, but it is morally wrong because it deprives a human person of his right to life—and thus we need to enact laws that protect the right to life for all people. This is the “pro-life” position I have in mind in asking under what circumstances is the “pro-life” voter morally justified in voting for a “pro-choice” candidate.

What about the “pro-choice” position? Is it really the case that someone who is “personally” “pro-life” could coherently be politically “pro-choice”? Is it really the same thing as being “pro-abortion”? Well, it is true that a “pro-choice” candidate for public office may never advise any particular women to have an abortion. The “pro-choice” candidate may even find abortion extremely distasteful and, perhaps, abhorrent. But the surgical procedure we call abortion is not the only subject matter of the “pro-choice” position. “Pro-choice” is also, and it is necessarily, a position about what public policies and laws we should have about abortion—specifically, whether abortion should be something women are free to choose, or not. “Pro-choice” is one answer to that policy inquiry. It is the answer that the legal protections which protect most of us from being killed should not protect all of us from being killed. Some people—the unborn—are to be exposed to deadly violence without legal aid or redress. And, so, just as antebellum Americans who refused to own slaves were nonetheless correctly called “pro-slavery”—because they affirmed the legal right of others to do so—Americans who today affirm the legal right of a women to have an abortion could correctly be called “pro-abortion,” even if they judge abortion an option unworthy of their own choice.

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This is the “pro-choice” position I have in mind in seeking to answer the question previously posed. This “pro-choice” position amounts to a grave injustice, one which “pro-choice” candidates necessarily embrace, support, and choose; it is precisely what being “pro-choice,” at a minimum, actually means. Anyone who votes for a “pro-choice” candidate becomes morally responsible for this grave injustice. The “pro-life” voter who votes for a “pro-choice” candidate materially—that is, in fact and as a matter of foreseeable effect—cooperates in sustaining this country’s radically defective legal structure about abortion. Take the case of presidential elections. Voting for a “pro-choice” candidate helps him to win the presidency, and helping him to win the presidency is, perforce, to help him make his declared “pro-choice” policies a reality (or, to the extent such policies are in place, to help him to block efforts to repeal them). The “pro-life” voter who votes for a “pro-choice” candidate knowingly declines to do what he or she can do to legally protect the unborn from being killed—namely, to vote for a “pro-life” candidate (if one is running).

The Golden Rule

Then under what circumstances is it morally permissible to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate, particularly one who promises not just to uphold the abortion license, but even to expand our unjust structure by introducing government funding of abortion and by removing some brakes upon abortion, such as parental notice laws?

To answer this question we have to consider the matter from the perspective of those who suffer the foreseeable harm resulting from the perpetration of “pro-choice” policies—the unborn who are killed. Then we have to apply the great moral principle we call the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule makes us walk in the others’ shoes, makes us count the stranger and his or her well-being just as one welcomes the benefits and avoid the harms of what one does when the beneficiary or victim is oneself or someone near and dear. The Golden Rule pushes back particularly hard against our tendency to discount the harms we visit upon those we do not know—those who cannot object, those who cannot offer effective resistance. The Golden Rule steers us to the morally right choice despite the fact that, though we may believe everyone is equal, we do not treat them that way. The Golden Rule leads us to be fair to everyone whose lives and fortunes are foreseeably affected by our actions—as justice requires.

This question about the fairness of lethal side-effects is in the news almost every day now. Not because of abortion, but because of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost every day there is news of an American air attack or ground operation which results in a substantial number of non-combatants’ deaths, or there is news about a postmortem analysis of an earlier deadly attack. (Some days there are both.) The basic scenario and the recurring moral question are always along these lines: suppose that there is a wedding feast in Northwest Pakistan. Among the 100 guests are two high level Al-Qaeda operatives. The military reality is that any attack intended to kill those two puts everyone present at grave risk of being killed. Would it be morally right to launch the airstrike, thus endangering 98 innocents to get two who are not?

I do not know for sure whether, all things considered, the strike should be ordered. I do know, however, that any right answer to the question must go through the Golden Rule, precisely so that we do not unfairly off-load fatal effects upon people who are not like us. Precisely to avoid that form of unjust partiality towards ourselves and those like us, we must ask: would we order the airstrike if the feast were in Zurich? Or in Dublin? Or if the feast were taking place in South Bend, Indiana (or your home town)? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then it is pretty clear that, if we nonetheless order the strike in Pakistan, we would not be acting in accordance with the truth that every innocent has an equal right not be killed. We would not be acting in accord with the Golden Rule.

We need to apply the Golden Rule in a very similar way to the question: when is it morally right to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate. I propose to do so by testing the three best arguments that “pro-life” voters voting for “pro-choice” candidates have made to justify their decision.

Argument 1: “Attack the Root Cause of Abortion”

This argument proposes to leave the unjust legal structure about abortion in place until some distant future time when, it is hoped, abortions will be so rare that prohibiting them will make sense. This argument proposes to now seek a reduction in the number of abortions performed annually, from the present 1.2 million to some lower number. The argument proposes to accomplish the reduction by attacking what are said to be abortion’s “root causes,” mainly, a widespread lack of proper health care and income supports. These proposals include better prenatal maternal care, better pediatric care, and more income supplements for the poor. The moral question is whether this proposal is fair to the unborn? And that entails applying the Golden Rule.

To do that we must take a different example of the same basic proposal, an example which substitutes a different set of people called upon to pay the price of doing nothing to legally restrict a certain class of deadly assaults. Take the example of domestic violence. Suppose that approximately 1.2 million American women are killed each year by domestic violence. Suppose further that a Presidential candidate said the following: “Friends, I think we must stop wasting resources prosecuting domestic violence. Let us get the law out of the picture. Maybe someday we could arrest men who kill women at home. But that day is not today, for anyone can see that arrests and convictions have not slowed the rate of domestic violence very much at all. Besides, we are talking about private family matters where people make hard choices. Let us instead join together and attack the root causes of domestic violence, causes which have to do with ignorance and poverty. I propose therefore to give angry men jobs and money to attend anger management classes. And I think we should start teaching all of America’ children early on that every man and woman deserves to be treated well.”

Anyone who refuses to vote for this candidate but who would vote for a “pro-choice” candidate is, at least presumptively, guilty of failure to apply the Golden Rule.

Argument 2: “He’s Better on Other Issues”

Some people who describe themselves as “pro-life” support “pro-choice” candidates without placing any faith in the reduce-the-incidence-of-abortion idea. These people instead maintain that the “pro-choice” politician’s positions on other issues, such as the environment, taxes, education, are so far superior to those of a “pro-life” alternative, that voting for the “pro-choice” politician—notwithstanding the harm his abortion policies would do—is the right thing. These people often say that the virtues of his other positions supply a “proportionate” reason for voting for a “pro-choice” candidate.

The question which these people must ask themselves is this: Would they vote for a “pro-choice” candidate on the strength of his preference for more government-provided health care than his rival proposes in his comparable plan, if doing so exposed their children to mortal danger? Suppose the candidate’s commitment to a policy of “choice” referred, not to so many tiny and invisible people, but instead to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, or to the same number of prisoners or mentally handicapped or physically infirm people. Would they still support that candidate, even if his policies on energy, taxes, and employment were superior to his rival’s?

A vote for a candidate who favors “pro-choice” policies on abortion by someone who does not answer the preceding questions “yes” does not, I think, satisfy the Golden Rule.

Argument 3: “Women’s Equality”

“For two decades of economic and social developments people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their control of their reproductive lives.”

This cluster of assertions by three members of the Supreme Court in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision tracks quite closely a very widespread conviction cited in support of “pro-choice” candidates. The central claim is that laws guaranteeing “choice” about abortion are instrumentally indispensable to women’s equality. Now, I do not think for a moment that the claim is true. But for this analysis I shall grant the claim, and then apply the Golden Rule to test the justice of the position articulated.

There is no need to imagine cognate claims, to which we must hypothetically apply the Golden Rule. History and current affairs supply countless examples of societies where some of its members have obtained equality for themselves by exploiting others of its members. Sometimes the numerator (those who gain) is larger than the denominator (those who suffer). Sometimes it is the other way around. In either event the basic moral question is the same. And there is little mystery about what just about everyone would say in response.

So, was it just for Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century to obtain the satisfactions of life in Central America—where the price was paid in blood by immiserated Amerindians? Was it fair for English men and women three centuries later to enjoy the fruits of pastoral life—brought to them on the backs of dead Irishmen? A century-and-a-half ago the Supreme Court “facilitated”—indeed, helped to preserve—the equality of all white people. But does anyone today defend Dred Scott as a moral beacon?

If the answer to these questions is “no,” then one who takes the Golden Rule to be a principle of justice cannot vote for a “pro-choice” candidate on the strength of what the Casey Court proclaimed. And if the voter tempted to vote “pro-choice” refuses to apply the Golden Rule—as I have done here—than he is refusing to seek and to do justice.