The Corner

Types of Equality

I finished that writing project a little earlier than I had expected, so I thought I’d address the one issue raised in my recent exchanges with Sullivan that, it seems to me, is both important and might confuse an honest observer. I’ve said it already, but it may have gotten lost amid Sullivan’s false and malicious charges and my responses. (I can’t help taking this occasion to point out that in Sullivan’s world, falsely suggesting that other people are soft on murder, misrepresenting their views in other respects, and criticizing others for associating with them based on these supposed views is all fun and games, while objecting to his misrepresentations and distortions is “personal viciousness.”)

Here’s that one issue. The standard pro-life position, which both Robert P. George and I defend, holds that the unborn have the same right to life as, say, adults or teenagers do. They have an equal right to life. Does it follow from that view either (1) that violations of their right to life are necessarily morally indistinguishable from violations of adults’ right to life, or (2) that they should be punished the same way? Both George and I say no, these things do not follow. (Other pro-lifers will not agree with us, and I don’t regard their disagreement as somehow beyond the pale.) Some of the reasons that the answer to (2) is no are prudential in nature. For example, too-tough penalties on abortion might make it hard to get juries to convict, and thus defeat the purpose of anti-abortion laws. But some of the reasons we answer no to (2) are based on our answering no to (1). They are based, that is, on moral considerations.

Take the case of a man who performs an abortion out of compassion for a pregnant woman in distress. Because George and I believe the fetus has an equal right not to be killed as an adult, we would judge that compassion misplaced and seek to prohibit the abortion. But we would also judge that act as less culpable, and less blameworthy, than, say, the murder of a business rival out of greed. That is one of the reasons we would judge the appropriate penalties in the former case to be less severe than in the latter case. (Both George and I have said that if abortion could be deterred, and the injustice of abortion communicated, by removing medical licenses from abortionists and fining unlicensed abortionists, we would not wish to go further.)

Another factor that diminishes culpability and is relevant to a moral assessment: In the case of abortion, the abortionist may sincerely hold various mistaken views about unborn life. The fact that these views are widely held in our society does not, in our view, strengthen the moral case for legal abortion, but it does, again, make us judge an act of abortion less harshly.

So, in other words, we regard the unborn as having an equal right to life as adults without regarding abortion as equivalent in every morally significant respect to the murder of an adult. The “cash value” of the equality in question, so to speak, consists solely of having a right to be protected by the state from unjust killing.

George and I went into some of these issues in the First Things essay which I’ve brought up here before, and I went into them briefly in the Corner the other day. But someone who is flat-footed, or malicious, might easily mix these things up. He might take evidence that, say, George believes in the equal right to life of the unborn—which merely makes him a pro-lifer—and assume that it’s evidence that he believes abortion is in every morally significant way equivalent to the murder of an adult. It doesn’t follow. And a careless reader, or someone determined to miss the point, might think that something slippery is going on (and invent all kinds of far-fetched motives for the slipperiness).

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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