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Hart’s Historicism


Anyone trying to reduce the prevalence of abortion and to impose legal restrictions on it is up against some very powerful social forces and trends, and Jeff Hart is right to point that out–even if he neglects the forces working in our favor. He has offered what he calls a “political” analysis; but as Kate points out, polling data (and election results) allow for a considerably more nuanced verdict than his.

So does history. Hart implies that widespread abortion became a social phenomenon only after the 1960s. This is untrue–read, for example, Marvin Olasky’s Abortion Rites for a discussion of the prevalence of abortion in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and of the largely successful legal campaign to combat it. There was nothing inevitable about the outcome of that campaign back then. If the outcome is inevitable now, it will require more demonstration than Hart has given.

Hart is also quite right about the deliberative nature of American government and about the value of discussion. Would that the courts had not short-circuited the process of deliberation on abortion. But I wonder if Hart’s insistence on the value of discussion is in tension with the rest of his analysis, which posits that discussion is pointless because the continuation of abortion on demand is historically inevitable.

One might also question whether the word “Jacobinical” advances discussion. To accept Hart’s strictures against “abstraction” would mean that we could never criticize positive laws from a moral standpoint. Burke did not make such a claim, and we would be foolish to follow him on this point if he had. Engaging in such criticism, and trying to persuade our fellow citizens to take the criticism to heart and change the laws, is a crucial part of deliberation. If that were all we criticized Robespierre for, we would not have much of an indictment.


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