The September issue of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly features a long article entitled “How Lincoln Might Have Dealt With Abortion.” It’s a thought-provoking analysis of the politics of abortion in America and has received attention from a number of major daily newspaper columnists.
The author, George McKenna, begins with a devastating critique of pro-choice politicians who say that abortion is a religious issue in which they cannot impose their views on others. He compares their position to that of Stephen A. Douglas, a slavery advocate who debated Abraham Lincoln and made this modern-sounding argument: “I hold that the people of the slave holding states are civilized men…and that they are accountable to God. It is for them to decide the moral and religious rights of slavery.”
McKenna’s thoughtful analysis takes a strange twist when he suggests that to deal with abortion as Lincoln dealt with slavery, a pro-life politician should:
First: Publicly and unambiguously denounce abortion as an evil which is to be eradicated;
Second: Support those government initiatives allowed by the Supreme Court;
Third: Not seek an immediate outlawing of abortion and not seek to stack the Supreme Court with pro-life appointees.
McKenna claims that this is an approach Lincoln would take. He cites Lincoln as someone who was opposed to slavery, spoke strongly against it as an evil he wished to see eradicated, but acted only in favour of containing slavery and within the confines established by the Supreme Court. Lincoln, for example never proposed packing the Supreme Court with anti-slavery appointees.
McKenna’s argument is on mighty weak ground here. Lincoln, by being opposed to the spread of slavery, was standing up for something real at a time when the U.S. was expanding territorially. Today in the U.S. abortion is readily available everywhere. Being opposed to its expansion is hardly a courageous stand. McKenna’s analysis also blithely ignores that a Civil War erupted which led to the abolition of slavery across the nation. That undoubtedly worked to make Lincoln’s stand on slavery look better than it actually was.
The article doesn’t end until McKenna has taken a few more unexpected turns. He argues that in today’s political environment, the modern Republican party is the natural ideological opponent of the pro-life movement and that philosophically speaking, the natural home for pro-life people is the liberal wing of the Democratic party!
McKenna suggests that modern Republicans triumph individual autonomy and oppose the state’s intervention in the decisions of the individual. The call of pro-life people for the state to restrict the free decision of a woman to have an abortion runs contrary to this. The author cites much evidence and argument in favour his characterization of Republican thinking.
My personal favourite is when he quotes Rush Limbaugh denouncing “environmental wackos” on the basis that “They don’t want you to have freedom of choice.” McKenna suggests that such freedom of choice is at the centre of Republican party philosophy today and explains the party’s failure to take any effective pro-life stand.
In Lincoln’s time the role of the parties was reversed. It was the Republicans who believed in intervention by the sate in what might otherwise be regarded as private matters. It was the Democrats who were advocates of unbridled individualism.
For McKenna the most important political goal for the pro-life movement in the immediate future is to move public opinion against abortion. Public opinion, he thinks is already a long way towards being there. Even among pro-abortion activists, abortion is a dirty word which they carefully avoid using in favour of such euphemisms as reproductive procedure. They do so because there is a consensus that abortion is, if not an evil, most certainly a “bad thing.”
As Canadians, the McKenna article can only cause is all to think more critically about who we label as allies and enemies in the political battle against abortion. In recent weeks the Ralph Klein government has responded to pro-life pressure by stating that it will end funding of those abortions that doctors certify as not medically necessary. This comes from a government which refuses to state any opposition to abortion or to characterize abortion in any way as wrong or evil. We should question whether his government deserves to be labelled as praiseworthy.