Yesterday morning Pete Buttigieg spoke with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, a National Review alumnus. They spent a few minutes talking about abortion. Buttigieg, who supports abortion rights, made no surprising arguments or observations. He repeated three common fallacies that have long clotted the abortion debate in America. I note and comment on them briefly below. Also: Overall, Costa is a meticulous journalist, but in this exchange his diction reflected support for one side in the abortion debate.
Here’s the transcript:
Costa: They may agree with you, Mayor, on those points, but on the issue of reproductive rights, they’re not with you. That’s what’s holding them with President Trump in many respects. What’s your argument to them on reproductive rights, if that’s their issue and that’s why they’re sticking with him?
Buttigieg: My argument is to ask them to join the majority of Americans who believe that this decision ought to be made by the woman concerned. Look, there are — and I say this as somebody who is a Democrat in office, in Indiana, so a lot of people I know, a lot of people I love, and even some people who support me politically, don’t view this issue the way I do. But, for those who have a strong view about some of these almost unknowable questions around life, the best answer I can give is that because we will never be able to settle those questions in a consensus fashion, scientifically —
Costa: Do you think the issue of life is an unknowable question?
Buttigieg: It’s certainly unknowable in the way that scientific questions are answered. It’s a moral question. And so the question is — it’s not how do we politically decide where the line ought to be drawn. The question is: Who gets to draw the line? Who gets to decide?
Costa: Should there be any line?
Buttigieg: That’s part of the framework of Roe versus Wade. Right? Early in pregnancy, very few restrictions. Late in pregnancy, very few exceptions. And for all its complexity and imperfection and controversy, Roe versus Wade is widely popular in this country precisely because it has allowed us to negotiate that, and now the drive to overturn Roe versus Wade is something that flies in the face of what Americans want.
“Reproductive rights, if that’s their issue.”
But it’s not their issue. Costa could just have easily adopted for the moment the point of view of the pro-life side. He could have said “rights of the unborn, if that’s their issue.” But that language wouldn’t have been neutral either. So why not just say “abortion”? “On the issue of abortion, they’re not with you. . . What’s your argument to them on abortion”? Clear, direct. Fewer syllables.
“This decision ought to be made by the woman concerned.”
Here Buttigieg fails to engage the pro-life side. He talks past it. He assumes that the conception of a child poses the question of whether to abort or not to abort and that the question is natural and legitimate. But pro-lifers reject that assumption.
Or does Buttigieg mean that the conception of a child may pose the question of whether to abort but only in hard cases such as rape, incest, and the life of the mother? No, because then he would be judging that abortion was justified in certain cases but not in others, contradicting his statement that only the woman bearing the child ought to make such a determination. “It’s not how do we politically decide where the line ought to be drawn. The question is: Who gets to draw the line?”
The most rigorous pro-life position is that no one ought to draw any lines. Costa gets that. Give him credit for articulating that view succinctly and asking Buttigieg to respond to it.
“The issue of life” is “unknowable in the way that scientific questions are answered. It’s a moral question.”
I assume that the question of when a human life begins is what Costa means by “the issue of life” as “an unknowable question.” The question is knowable. So is the answer: At fertilization, our bodies come into existence as genetically unique organisms. That statement can fairly be called “scientific,” and Buttigieg is wrong to suggest otherwise. The moral question that he refers to is the question of how soon after our conception we should be respected as human persons, in society and under the law.
“. . . the framework of Roe versus Wade. Right? Early in pregnancy, very few restrictions. Late in pregnancy, very few exceptions.”
Buttigieg repeats a common misunderstanding about Roe and late-term abortion. Roe permits it. At the same time, it permits states to restrict abortion late in pregnancy and gestation, but it doesn’t require them to do so.
The music of Buttigieg’s comments about abortion is reasonable-sounding, but the lyrics are a tissue of pieties and evasions. Clarity, honesty, fairness, and accuracy in political conversations about abortion would be helpful. They’re in short supply. They’ve always been.
For a model of how to think and talk about abortion, a Democrat running for president could do worse than reread Christopher Hitchens. He did upset his allies on the left by expressing respect for the unborn. His language about them was humanizing. He advocated greater legal protection for them but stopped short of advocating a ban on abortion, and so the pro-life community was reluctant to embrace him, although in substance his position on the issue was that of the typical pro-life American politician: In 1988, in an interview with Crisis, a Catholic magazine, he said that he would make exceptions for “rape, incest, proven mental or physical incapacity” (of the mother, I assume). “Not all taking of human life is murder,” he explained, adding that it was “wicked” of pro-lifers to say otherwise, “especially when you notice how few of them are pacifists.”
A few are. The Hahn family, for example: business owners who went to the Supreme Court (Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, 2014) to defend their right to exclude from their employees’ insurance plans all provisions for drugs and devices often designated as “emergency contraception.” The Hahns objected to them because they function, or may function, as abortifacients. They opposed the taking of human life in all circumstances, not just those that involve pregnancy and gestation. The Hahns “are pro-life across the board,” their lawyer explained to the press, “including their stand against capital punishment and going to war.” As Mennonite Christians, they adhere to a doctrine that approaches that of Jainism, which discourages the taking of any life, not just human life. Jain monks, for example, take care not to step on insects.
Those of us who aren’t Jains but whose opposition to abortion is thorough partake a little of the same sentiment that they do. We take their respect for the sanctity of life in general and apply it specifically to members of our own species between conception and birth. The range of circumstances that we think warrant relaxation, if any, of the principle never to take the life a human being after birth varies from person to person. Hitchens is right: Few of us are pacifists. We disagree among ourselves about the death penalty. We largely agree in saying no to assisted suicide — and to unassisted suicide, for that matter.
As for abortion, Americans who belong to the mushy middle or even support an unrestricted right to abortion up to birth constitute a majority. The more charitable among them look at our thinking on abortion and acknowledge our moral sensitivity but fear that it’s too exquisite, an ideal that in our fallen world we can’t afford to make the rule. Note that Jains as a rule are not activists for their doctrine. Few if any of us can live in accord with ahimsa always and perfectly. It’s an aspiration for us as individuals as well as a society. The goal may be beyond our reach, but we can still approach it. It can be our compass. A Democratic presidential candidate who articulated such a philosophy would be refreshing.