Arguing abortion

Posted: October 22, 1999
1:00 am Eastern

By Alan Keyes

It is often said that defenders of the right to life harm their cause by passing an absolute moral judgment on their opponents, thus implying that defenders of abortion are unqualifiedly evil. We are accused of being close-minded and dogmatic, and of making mutually respectful discussion impossible.

We paint, it is said, with a brush that is a bit too broad. We are told that within the Republican Party itself there are many pro-choice people who consider themselves to be quite moral, and who even agree that morality is the basis of the party, and that the destruction of the family is at the heart of many of our national problems. Pro-lifers are accused of unreasonably treating the pro-choice position of such people as a sign that their more general moral convictions are not sincere. We are told that this is counterproductive and uncharitable.

I understand this sentiment. I understand that many people assume that my own absolute rejection of the abortion doctrine implies an absolute condemnation of those who defend it, or even those who cannot find the will or understanding to stand with me to oppose it. And I agree that it would be a mistake to conclude that all those who accept abortion take equally immoral stances on every issue. But I emphatically disagree that the solution is to cooperate in the effort to put abortion on the back burner. Continuing to raise the issue is actually a sign of our deep respect and concern not only for the unborn, but for those who right now reject the pro-life position.

There was once another group of people who got an issue of fundamental moral importance wrong. They were decent, good, moral people. They had tremendous moral insight, which I deeply respect. They came to tremendous conclusions about human life and human nature which led to the closest thing this earth has yet seen to perfect political wisdom.

They are called our Founders.

But their wisdom does not entirely negate the fact that a blighted and unjust institution was tolerated by their actions. As with today's defenders of abortion, this acquiescence did not make them entirely evil men and women. But neither does their great virtue change the fact of that injustice ... or the fact that every human being ultimately was responsible for struggling against it.

Those who disagree with me on abortion can be perfectly decent, moral human beings. I will respect their moral conclusions just as I respect the moral conclusions of the Founders; but I will fight the evil they tolerate, just as I would have fought the evil tolerated by our Founders.

If this ruffles some feathers, you'll just have to excuse me, because the need to stand for American principle on Declaration issues is the lesson I draw from the most important events in American history, including the history of my own ancestors. I will stand or fall with that lesson, because nothing in our public life is more important than rejecting the principle that one human being -- whether it be a mother or a slave-owner -- has the right to treat another human life as property.

As anyone who has insisted on raising the issue of the right to life in the public arena knows, the pressure to keep silent on the issue can be intense, particularly from political allies who smell victory if we can just avoid certain uncomfortable topics. This siren song is being heard again these days, as G. W. Bush signals furiously that he will do whatever is necessary to avoid "risking" defeat for the party by being "judgmental" of his fellow citizens.

Bush Republicans are fooling themselves in their insistence that, if a few pro-life leaders would be silent, the Republican Party would have clear sailing to victory. It is not a few pro-life leaders who are keeping this issue on the table, any more than it was Lincoln who kept the issue of slavery before the nation in the years before the Civil War. Republicans yearning for comfortable victory can struggle with the fact all they like, but it is the Declaration of Independence that burdens this country with the abortion issue. The Declaration is our burden to carry -- and we will carry it to glory, or to perdition, but we cannot lay it down.

I know that many Americans, many Republicans, wish to do so. But they should look back at their own history, because they are placing themselves in the tradition of those who avoided facing up to the need for racial justice in this century, and of those who avoided the need to fight the institution of slavery in the 19th century.

The arguments for silence on abortion have been heard before, in other times and on other issues. The issue, we are told, is divisive. It will destroy the Union. It will be destructive of peace and civil order.

In reply to these arguments, the same voice of conscience has sounded in every generation, telling us that we will either believe in the principles of the Declaration, and reason consistently from them, or we will not survive as a free people. This dilemma was set before us by the Founders, when they penned their Declaration that human beings self-evidently do not have the right to decide to abuse one another's lives -- our Founders acknowledged in principle, even as they struggled with their own practice, that the right to do so has been denied to us by God, our Creator.

And because the Declaration puts this liberating truth before us as Americans, defenders of life have the right to demand that those who insist on dropping the abortion issue confront its words. For although abortion is called the "pro-choice" issue, there is one choice that its defenders ultimately cannot make -- to ignore the issue. They are either going to have to refute the argument against abortion or accept its validity and join their fellow citizens in rejecting abortion as we have rejected slavery and racial oppression.

They cannot avoid this challenge, because I, with many just and decent people in this country, will continue to raise it. Even, or especially, at moments when political success or failure at the polls is supposedly at stake, we will continue to make the argument from principle. And we will make a better argument than the defenders of abortion, because we have the self-evident truth of the principle of human equality on our side. If our opponents disagree, they are welcome to join the debate and make their case. We will go before the American people, who will eventually decide the question in light of the Declaration principles that still form the conscience of this people.

So my goal is not to establish that certain people are bad. It is to help retrieve all of us from the misery to which a fundamental compromise of our deepest moral convictions will lead us. The pro-life effort is a labor of love not just toward the unborn, but even more profoundly toward those who are in the grip of the moral confusion and, yes, evil, of the abortion doctrine.

This is, finally, why we cannot accept counsel of those who claim to oppose abortion in principle but urge that the most effective course is to seek practical limits and reductions of abortion short of prohibition. This view invites us to say to the American people that we can turn our back on a challenge to our fundamental Declaration principles, while we try to work at a practical level to reduce an evil that we can't even call by its true name. This will not work, among other reasons, because it is so clear that such proposals lack true conviction. Our young people especially sense that tentative responses lack the conviction of real moral confidence. They realize that if a thing is truly judged bad, their elders will truly want it stopped, that it is only things partially good that are long tolerated, and that if something is truly harmful, we will seriously try to discourage it.

In the end, the young people of America -- all the people of America -- will draw the lessons our national actions imply. And the lesson of silent toleration of abortion, even a frowning toleration, is that it is consistent with human happiness to harden our hearts against our offspring, to treat that offspring as a dehumanized obstruction, and to remove it when it gets in our way. This is the lesson we teach by anything short of a sustained effort to win the argument against abortion, and end its legal practice. It is a lesson incompatible with civilized life.

Abortion is wrong in light of our common principles as a people. Speaking out against abortion is thus primarily the attempt to show its defenders that they embrace this practice at the expense of things much dearer to their own hearts, and which they cannot finally even consider abandoning. Opposing abortion by argument shows precisely the respect and concern for our opponents that the ruffled-feather crowd don't understand, for our argument relies on the presumption that all of our fellow citizens remain resolved to seek justice, and to live with one another in charity under God. Allowed to flourish, abortion finally will undermine this deepest democratic confidence, and it is for this reason that we must address it or confess that we do not intend to sustain self-government.


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