The Corner

Politics & Policy

First Things Shows How Not to Debate Pro-Life Strategy

Signs outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Philip Jeffery, writing in First Things, criticizes me and other writers for advocating an incrementalist strategy against abortion. His article is heavy on ad hominem attacks and light on engagement with anything I have actually said. I will extend to him a courtesy he did not extend me, and quote his actual words.

Some may dismiss pro-life dissenters from the Alabama law as desperately trying to earn bona fides from pro-choice opinion-makers. That may be true. . .

Yes, I wrote The Party of Death—and have written countless articles making the case for legal prohibitions on abortion—because I am so desperately seeking accolades from pro-choice opinion-makers. I’ve been doing it for decades without getting such praise, but surely my luck will turn eventually.

. . . but I’m more interested in the fact that arguments for an incrementalist strategy largely come from so-called ‘moderate’ conservative voices—conservatives who now advocate incrementalism for everything except democracy promotion abroad.

I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything about democracy promotion. I don’t associate any of the other writers he criticizes with that topic, either; it sounds like Jeffery’s got a hobbyhorse. For the record, though, I think more democracy overseas would generally be a good thing and, to the extent the U.S. has a role to play in promoting it, it should do it incrementally.

The law is always a teacher. . . . The constriction of political debate has in turn limited the cultural debate. Pro-abortion laws help make for a pro-abortion populace. By the same token, pro-life laws could be helpful in the battle for public opinion.

These comments are presented as though they are in some way at odds with my argument, although what I said fairly obviously presupposes their truth. From the article of mine to which Jeffery links: “[T]he fight for [a pro-life amendment to the Constitution] created an insoluble chicken–egg dilemma: The culture would have to change immensely for it to be ratified, but the law as it stood made it hard to envision, let alone foster, any such change.” But there are more and less effective ways to teach, and laws that actually take effect may do a better job of it.

Pro-life critics of the Alabama law make a mistake common among conservatives of all kinds: They confuse political strategy with cultural strategy. Even while assuming a sharp boundary between the political fight against abortion and the cultural one, they propose an incrementalist strategy in the law as the way to victory in both battles.

I would like to see exactly how I make this mistake. I don’t assume any such sharp boundary, as my previously quoted words demonstrate.

Accustomed to seeing the world in terms of a sharp dichotomy between artificial, government-imposed order and spontaneous order constructed by individuals, conservatives too easily condemn government action while championing civil society, markets, culture, and personal choice as the proper spheres of their activity. . . .

All these boundaries and dichotomies are very interesting, I’m sure, but what exactly do they have to do with the proposition that pushing for a ban on abortion after six weeks is a better way to move the country in a pro-life direction than pushing for a ban after 20 weeks?

Incrementalism is a losing cultural strategy. The left did not gain the cultural upper hand by incrementalism. The sexual revolution that gave us the current abortion regime did not come about by baby steps.

I doubt very much that incrementalism is either a winning or losing cultural strategy in all situations, as I suggested in the linked article. But the sexual revolution did, in fact and obviously, proceed in stages. Legal and cultural change made contraception within marriage first tolerable and then normal; the laissez-faire attitude toward contraceptive sex within marriage was then extended to non-marital sex. I could go on—but I assume anyone who has been reading First Things for any length of time is familiar with the story. I suppose, though, that not everyone can be trusted to be an attentive reader of anything.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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