Late last month, the mayor of my city, South Bend, Indiana, vetoed a zoning request put forth by the Women’s Care Center, the nation’s largest pregnancy resource center, to open a branch next door to the anticipated site of an abortion clinic.
The mayor, Pete Buttigieg, a winsome young politician who is often compared to John F. Kennedy and touted for leadership in the national Democratic Party, explained his decision by paraphrasing what candidate Barack Obama told pastor Rick Warren in the 2008 presidential campaign: “Issues on the legality or morality of abortion are dramatically beyond my paygrade as a mayor.” It was rather safety, security, and stability that motivated him, the mayor said. “I don’t think it would be responsible to situate two groups, literally right next door to each other, in a neighborhood, that have diametrically opposed views on the most divisive social issue of our time.”
John Rawls might well have agreed. After publishing his 1971 classic, A Theory of Justice, our era’s most renowned political philosopher became preoccupied with how democracy could remain stable under the stress of religious, philosophical, and ideological disagreement. Roe v. Wade, the rise of the religious right, and the disputes to which they gave rise worried Rawls acutely. He opened his second major work, Political Liberalism, of 1993, as well as his book on international justice published the same year, The Law of Peoples, with a historical narrative in which Christianity once dominated the public square and begat persecution, intolerance, and eventually religious war until finally theological questions were sidelined and stable liberal democracy became possible. Rawls’s prescription for stability can be summed up in his phrase: political, not metaphysical. He called citizens to refrain from appealing to their religious and philosophical “comprehensive conceptions” when entering the public square and to base their arguments solely on common “political” conceptions such as liberty, equality, and rights. Only through such an ethic of “public reason” could citizens reach an “overlapping consensus” and political stability, he thought.
South Bend Common Council member Regina Preston-Williams also reasoned in a Rawlsian way when she argued that the mayor “articulated [well] that this is a zoning issue,” warned against “[t]he potential for . . . conflict,” and asked “is that going to be a welcoming and peaceful first impression when people drive in from the airport?” The implication is clear. Stability, security, peace, the calm management of differences, an appealing drive in from the airport—these factors are political, ones that all can agree upon. The abortion debate—this is metaphysical, and inevitably fractious. Politics should proceed on political grounds, she and the mayor believe.
But such a distinction solves nothing at all. Citizens disagree not only on “metaphysical” matters—religion and philosophy—but also on where the dividing line is between the political and the metaphysical, and on whether religious and philosophical convictions ought to be left out of politics at all. In a famous footnote in Political Liberalism, Rawls considered abortion and concluded that political, not metaphysical, considerations would favor abortion rights. But why should that be? Defenders of the right to life argue that the human right to life is an almost universally accepted principle, that life’s origin at conception is a readily apprehensible fact, and that these considerations, which are above nobody’s pay grade, are rightfully realized in politics. It is rather the denial of life’s origins at conception that requires elaborate and highly disputable metaphysics and is thus above everyone’s pay grade, they argue. Rawls disagreed, as will advocates of abortion rights. The sphere of disagreement will not be reduced, however, by calling some considerations political and others metaphysical. This is an arbitrary line that purchases little progress.
Equally problematic were Mayor Buttigieg’s Rawlsian efforts to corral debate into a political sphere in which security and stability are the sole and decisive rationales. Even on these grounds, his arguments are unconvincing. Why does he think that the Women’s Care Center will foment instability? Founded in 1984 in South Bend and now operating twenty-eight locations in ten states, the center is, to be sure, pro-life in its motivation, yet it is manifestly apolitical in its operation. The Center does not protest, is rarely protested, has never advocated against abortion rights, and does not even counsel women for or against abortion. Rather, it follows a methodology of love and care, diapers and ultrasounds, helping women who come through its doors to slow down, consider their possibilities, and follow through with childbirth should they choose life.
This works. Of the thousands of pregnant women who visit the center every year, 92 percent choose life. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, abortions have declined by 63 percent since the center opened in 2004, and in South Bend by 55 percent since 1998. The center is widely respected in the South Bend community, even among people with different views of what the Mayor calls America’s most divisive issue. If anyone can secure an overlapping consensus in this debate, it is the Women’s Care Center. Who would argue with cribs and parenthood classes?
The Women’s Care Center often chooses locations next to abortion clinics so as to attract the attention of panicked and pressured women and convey to them that they have a real choice. There are now twenty-two such locations. Never in thirty-four years have they caused violence or unrest. So, when the Women’s Care Center recently got word that the Texas-Based Whole Women’s Health Alliance plans to install an abortion clinic on South Bend’s West Side, a disproportionately low-income and minority neighborhood in a city where 32 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, the Center purchased the property next door to the clinic’s intended location. But the Center needed to have its new property rezoned from residential to business. The South Bend Common Council approved its request by a vote of five to four, only to have its decision vetoed by the mayor.
Pregnancy resource centers do not draw protest; abortion clinics do. Should demonstrations take place outside this new abortion clinic, they will proceed regardless of whether a branch of the Women’s Care Center stands next door. These demonstrations will take place outside the abortion clinic on account of what happens inside the abortion clinic, where, if recent history is any guide, several hundred unborn persons every year will enter but will not exit. It is this reality that inhibits an overlapping consensus of citizens, many of whom remained unconvinced that their convictions ought to be quarantined from politics.
Let us view all of this in light of Mayor Buttigieg’s aspirations for national leadership in the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the Democrats’ defeat in November, 2016, which left the party occupying fewer offices across the country than at any time since the 1920s, Buttigieg argued that the party should promote an “everyday politics” in which government makes a real difference in the lives of its citizens through jobs, health care, and protection of the environment. Political, not metaphysical. He calls especially for the inclusion of those who have been left out of the economy—that is, those who voted for Donald Trump.
A mayor of a mid-sized city is just the man to argue this. In South Bend, as he put it, “residents are not calling us about Syria or abortion. They want to know if I can get the possum out of the road.” Political, not metaphysical. And Buttigieg is not just any old mayor but rather one whom everyone credits with the Kennedy-esque feat of getting South Bend moving again. He has brought life back to downtown through a renovated traffic scheme, promoted the revival of urban neighborhoods, and boosted citizens’ morale in a rust-belt town that is still recovering from the departure of the Studebaker plant in the early 1960s. Political, not metaphysical.
Not so the national Democratic Party, which has shunned any common ground in embracing an ideology of abortion rights that approaches fundamentalism. The party’s last two conventions have featured heads of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America as primetime speakers. In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton took the extreme position of defending the legality of partial-birth abortion in the late October debate in Las Vegas, eliciting a sharp retort from Donald Trump, mobilizing pro-life voters in swing states, and inadvertently laying the groundwork for the surprise waiting for her on election night. Even after the election, the party has continued to make life hard for its pro-life members, who have now been placed on the endangered species list.
Buttigieg surely understands what Hillary Clinton did not, and what people in flyover country do: this is not a winning electoral strategy. South Bend is a quintessential example of a community whose residents lean progressive on economic issues and conservative on social issues, such as abortion. One would think, then, that a politician like Buttigieg, who aspires to national office on a message of unity and inclusion, would push his party towards common ground—like the common ground that the Women’s Care Center occupies. Why, then, would he veto this center’s zoning request?
If the mayor were wise, he would admit his mistake and call the Democratic Party to capaciousness on the issue of abortion. If he seeks higher electoral office, his appeal might lose him support among some party bosses, but it would gain him support among voters.
This is strategic advice, not moral advice. He will not get my vote. Mine will go to the candidate who advocates not only diapers, ultrasounds, and parenting classes but also extending the full protection of the law to the people whom the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance wants to eliminate and the Women’s Care Center wants to save. Metaphysical? Maybe. Political? Why yes.