To be pro-life is to be part of an insurgent political movement that has been disempowered for nearly 50 years. Any such movement needs to obtain and to use political power to effect social change. For pro-lifers, the presidency and reelection campaign of Donald Trump have resulted in considerable debate on just how valuable political power should be to us.
In The Bulwark today, Mona Charen, a pro-life advocate (among other things) whom I have great respect for, justifies her impending vote for Joe Biden. First, she restates her opposition to abortion as an “abhorrent” injustice, but then she warns against what she calls “abortion washing” or letting the pro-life/pro-choice distinction become the sole determinant of how one will vote. Charen contends that to abortion wash is to fail to “do the work of analyzing how one good thing weighs in the balance against other considerations” and that it therefore “permits the brain to snap shut, the conscience to put its feet up.” Instead of succumbing to this heuristic-driven process, Charen argues for “plac[ing] abortion within the matrix of factors that go into voting.”
Expanding upon this matrix, she enumerates the ways that Donald Trump has proven himself unfit for office and catalogues examples of how he has corrupted the conservative movement. It’s a damning list, and I agree with Charen that opposing abortion is not enough for a politician to secure my support. Yet to me — and to many others, I think — it is a prerequisite for such support.
Charen’s case for Biden becomes less solid as she transitions from the general to the specific and becomes dismissive of the deleterious effects a Biden presidency will have on the pro-life movement. Professing to have “never believed that electing presidents who agree with me will lead to dramatic changes in abortion law” nor to seeing “the law itself [as] the only way to discourage abortion,” she touts the encouraging fact that the number of abortions performed in the U.S. has been declining for decades.
On the first point, Charen glosses over the details of what is at stake for pro-lifers in presidential elections. True, the president cannot issue an edict making abortion illegal from sea to shining sea. But there are important policies that either come from the Oval Office or can stop there. Take for example the “Mexico City” policy. Initially instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, it bars federal funding for non-governmental organizations that perform or advocate abortion abroad. Since then, it has been rescinded by every Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican one. Per Biden’s website, he would be no different and would “end the Global gag rule.”
Yet Charen remains somewhat sanguine about a possible Biden administration. Purporting to remind conservatives that Biden would not govern as far-left as they fear, she says she “could have sworn that the Democratic Party nominated Joe Biden last week, not Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or Bernie Sanders.” On the issue of abortion, though, is there a difference between the socialist and the former vice president? For the duration of his Senate career, Biden supported the Hyde amendment, which ensures — well, is supposed to ensure — that federal dollars don’t fund abortions. Yet during the primary, Biden reversed course, saying “I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need and the ability to exercise their constitutionally protected right.” If the Democrats take the Senate and presidency, as Charen hopes, this longstanding pro-life bulwark could vanish. And although the Trump administration has not been able to fully defund Planned Parenthood, it has, by way of bureaucratic rulemaking, been able to deny it Title X funding that it has had access to since the 1970s. Biden would undoubtedly restore that funding.
Unconvinced that judicial nominees are as important as they are made out to be, Charen is also skeptical that more Republican appointments will result in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey being overturned. She’s right to be. Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and Anthony Kennedy all turned out to be disappointments to the pro-life movement, and last month’s decision in June Medical v. Russo should leave us more pessimistic than ever. But it does not follow that past failure should discourage conservatives from future action. If the status quo is to be changed, all roads lead to Roe. Before any heartbeat bill is to take effect, that constitutionally illiterate and evil ruling must be tossed into the dustbin of history. Because it is hard is not an excuse not to try.
Moreover, while we should all be grateful that the total number of abortions has been declining over the long run, there is little reason for rejoicing. In 2017, about 862,000 abortions occurred in the U.S. It’s a ghastly and sobering number — one that does not lend itself to the case for complacency. Cultural arguments are important, but a legal framework of some sort is inevitable; and right now, that framework is stacked against those who believe in the sanctity of human life.
Opposite Charen however, is a group of pro-lifers who not only recognize the value of political power, but worship it. Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life — an organization that does invaluable work on campuses around the country — found herself among that contingent on Wednesday when she tweeted: “Defunding Planned Parenthood would defund one of President Trump’s main political opponents. Just sayin, @realDonaldTrump.”
Hawkins — who clearly places abortion at the very top of her decision-making matrix in the voting booth — makes an argument that is both politically damaging and morally corrupting. Conservatives should oppose funding Planned Parenthood because of the evil the organization is complicit in, and because continuing to send it federal dollars violates the spirit if not the letter of the Hyde amendment, not to stick it to their political opponents. Hawkins’s musing does nothing to persuade anyone to join the pro-life cause. Power worship is in vogue in some quarters of the right today, but it is both unproductive and unrealistic, not to mention wrong. Using the government to punish political opponents was reprehensible when Lois Lerner and the Internal Revenue Service did it to Tea Party groups. It would be reprehensible for conservatives to follow suit.
Instead, pro-lifers should see political power as a means, not an end. Charen is right that we all have our own prudential judgements to make when deciding whom to support (or not). I’m not here to condemn anyone’s ultimate decision. But those who count themselves as opponents of American’s prevailing abortion regime should fully and honestly grapple with the implications of their decisions while resisting the siren song of power worship exemplified by Hawkins’s advice to the president. Political power is a necessity, but not necessarily a virtue.