Politics & Policy

Contra Frum

An argument within the family.

In the pages of National Review, David Frum has weighed in with his usual, engaging argument, this time on the side of Rudy Giuliani. As he made his case, he paid me the compliment of using my own recent piece, contra Giuliani, as a foil for his own. He was generous enough to describe my own piece as “forceful,” and took it as the occasion to produce an argument forceful in turn. And that is exactly what we would wish in a conversation among friends, trying to settle their judgments on this vexing matter.

But in picking passages from my own piece, he curiously neglected to recount the reasoning that supported those passages, including the portions that coincided with his own argument. And if one looked again at the substance of what I had said, it would become clearer that nothing he said actually countered the argument I offered, and on several critical points he had actually confirmed that argument.

First, on the point of possible convergence: David left out of his account my avowal that I might indeed have to “bite my lip” and vote for Rudy, and do that for reasons rather close to his own. I too have been aware of the vast damage that can be done by eight years of a Democratic administration that regards abortion, not merely as a regrettable choice, but as a positive good, to be promoted at every turn by executive orders and through resolutions at the United Nations, meant to feed back into the American law. And, in addition to the aforementioned effects, we would suffer the steady appointment of judges who regard the freedom to order abortions as the new “first freedom.” But as I argued also in my piece, the Republican party has become the pro-life party, and for the sake of rescuing the pro-life party, the pro-life issue may have to be placed, in the scale of things, just below the concern for vindicating the rightness of the war in Iraq. For the thoughtless recoil against the war may damage the Republican party in a sweeping way, and take down with it the most important force in our politics for the pro-life movement.

But the risk implicit in this move is that it takes this issue — the destruction of 1.3 million innocent human lives each year — and removes it to a place rather secondary or even peripheral to the concerns that are regarded as central to the Republican party. David confirms precisely the logic of that move in several ways, which may indeed have passed his notice.

He has quite signed on to the main vice exhibited by the Republican establishment: that the task of dealing with this issue of abortion is not the business of the political class or the elected leadership. When he says that we are on the verge of breakthrough at the Supreme Court, needing one more appointment, he assumes that the matter of abortion is indeed mainly the business of the courts. In that respect, he seems oblivious of the fact that, for the past several years, the President has had within his hands the means of bringing the issue of abortion to the Endgame with simple, costless moves, using the measures we have already passed in Congress, and pushing the Democrats into crippling tensions. I have already outlined those simple measures, in several places, including memos solicited by members of the White House staff, and I won’t take the space to review them here. Those measures do not even require the exertion of an executive order. That President Bush has not made even these gentle moves, which could induce deep strains among the Democrats, while costing him nothing, may be a measure of his own political tin ear. But it may also confirm the message that he had put out as early as 1999: that he would sign anything that we could manage to pass in Congress, but that he himself would show no leadership on this matter. We did not realize how literally he had meant that. By temperament and discipline, the conservative judges cast their judgments in a narrow way, deciding no more than that which they strictly need to decide. They are not equipped to carry the political burden of treating the political crisis of abortion. That is the work of the political class, moving in short steps, leading the courts gradually to cut back on Roe v. Wade, until one day the Court may take a shorter step, long anticipated, and finally put Roe v. Wade to rest.

In reporting to us that Rudy Giuliani shares an aversion to abortion, he tells us that Giuliani has declared “his personal revulsion at abortion.” Does David not recognize this as the old line of “personally opposed, but …”? That is, the line that treats an issue as a matter of personal feeling or personal taste and conspicuously not as a matter of moral judgment of right or wrong. Giuliani does not say, “I am personally opposed to racial discrimination, or the use of drugs, but who am I impose my personal revulsions on anyone else?” He treats those issues with the logic of a moral judgment, the judgment he conspicuously avoids here. This late in the seasons of our experience, why would David offer this argument with a straight face as though we were witless enough to be taken in by it? (Scene from a campaign among the Incas: “I’m personally opposed to child sacrifice, and I’d even offer people tax incentives to avoid it, but I’m not prepared to impose my judgment on them in place of their own, deep convictions.”)

Giuliani may indeed work to persuade people to choose adoption over abortion, and that would indeed be a good. But has Frum failed to notice that this approach leaves entirely undisturbed this governing premise: that we still confirm in the hands of people the freedom to destroy an innocent life, without the need to render a justification, or give any reason at all that rises above convenience.

If the American people come deeply to absorb that understanding, something will have altered for the worse in the American soul. And for David to ask us to acquiesce in these propositions, is to ask us to make ourselves suggestible to the understanding that abortion may indeed be addressed and understood as a matter wholly lacking in moral significance; a matter to be treated decisively as a matter of personal taste, with no need to justify to anyone else, the taking of an innocent life. I pose the question, then, from my piece: When we add these things up, do we not indeed find a move to induce the rest of us, in the style of Stephen Douglas against Lincoln, not to “care” too much about this issue, and put it in a secondary or peripheral place in the scale of our concerns. What part of that argument has David managed to dislodge?

As I noted in my own piece, I haven’t given up entirely on Rudy, for in slow steps he may yet take a turn. I suggested different things he might do to offer assurances to pro-lifers, as in the selection of a running mate, or an Attorney General. But since David must be in touch with the Giuliani camp, I would offer this suggestion, which he may try: No Republican White House, under Reagan or the two Bushes, has had a member of the staff who bears responsibility for devising and overseeing an integrated strategy on abortion. That is, there has been no one who has been assigned the distinct task of orchestrating a scheme of strategic steps, moving with a combination of executive orders and legislative measures, designed to put premises in place and advance, with each step, the cause of protecting life. Each Administration has people who can be in touch with the pro-life movement and go out in public occasionally to “make nice” to the pro-lifers. But Rudy could send a notable signal if he announces his intention to create a post of that kind, and appoint to it one of those notable lawyers who commands the respect of the Federalists and the pro-life movement. Then we could go forth with the sense that his heart and his head are truly in it.

— Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College, and one of the authors of the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College, the founder of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, and the architect of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Acts.


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