Amy Sullivan on Richard Mourdock

by Reihan Salam

I was very impressed by Amy Sullivan’s recent note on Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who has been condemned for his recent remarks about abortion and rape. After making it emphatically clear that she disagreed with Mourdock, Sullivan wrote the following:

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about. 

Take a look again at Mourdock’s words: “I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And…even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” The key word here is “it.” I think it’s pretty clear that Mourdock is referring to a life that is conceived by a rape. He is not arguing that rape is the something that God intended to happen. 

This is a fairly common theological belief, the understanding of God as an active, interventionist. It’s also not limited to conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians who also argue that things work out the way they’re supposed to. Some of them are in my own family, and I think they’re wrong. But it is one way of grappling with the problem of theodicy, trying to understand why God would allow bad things to happen.

The most important and valuable part of Sullivan’s post, in my view, is her willingness to share Mourdock’s actual statement and to parse it carefully. Having opened the post by explicitly distancing herself from Mourdock’s view, Sullivan ends her post on the same note. Yet her willingness to state that Mourdock doesn’t necessarily “hate women or want to control women” sets her apart her from many other commentators on the controversy surrounding his remarks, and for that she deserves great credit.

Update: I should add that I don’t agree with Sullivan’s assessment of pro-life politicians. Frankly, I’ve been so struck by egregious misrepresentations of Mourdock that I was pleased to read a left-of-center opinion journalist give him even the slightest benefit of the doubt.

In a related vein, David Frum of The Daily Beast has written a series of posts on abortion in which he:

(a) compares the battle over abortion to the battle over alcohol prohibition, an analogy he acknowledges is imperfect;

(b) calls for a pro-life movement that focuses more on moral suasion than legislative action;

(c) argues that abortion restrictions that make no allowance for exceptions in the case of rape are untenable;

and (d) describes Germany as a model for a U.S. abortion settlement. 

My sense is that Frum doesn’t fully appreciate the extent to which Roe actually limits the ability of the U.S. to reach something like the German compromise. But his posts are worth a look, regardless of where you fall on the larger abortion debate. Update: I’d also add that alcohol prohibition analogy rests on a misunderstanding of the abortion debate. As Peter Berkowitz has explained, the abortion debate is powerful and central because it represents a rights clash:

The central debates over the constitutionality of abortion and affirmative action are hard cases because they do not for the most part pit liberal principles and goods on one side against some other kinds of principles and goods on the other, but rather involve a confrontation between conservative and progressive interpretations of the practical demands of constitutionally protected freedoms. Because it is more difficult to translate arguments against same-sex marriage into the language of freedom, there is a good chance that should the issue come before the Supreme Court, some majority of justices will hold that the Constitution requires it.

Though Berkowitz is describing constitutional debates, his logic applies to political struggles as well. The prohibition of alcohol was not a case that could be articulated in the language of freedom, and so it was always at a distinct disadvantage. The same isn’t true of efforts to restrict abortion. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.