How the Pro-Life Movement Defeats Itself
Last week, the House voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks. Members split largely along party lines. Only six Democrats voted for the legislation; just as many Republicans voted against it.
An earlier committee vote on the bill had the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank spitting mad. In a column zinging the “manly Republican Party,” he suggested the GOP play its theme song: “Men men men men, manly men men men!”
Milbank, incidentally, is male. I’m sure he thinks his position on abortion is more valid than Sarah Palin’s.
Kermit Gosnell, the disgraced Philadelphia doctor who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a baby born alive after a failed abortion, is also a man. But most of his victims—the born ones, at least—were not. Gosnell was sentenced to two and a half to five years for the involuntary manslaughter of Karnamaya Mongar, for instance.
That’s not to say that either gender possesses a monopoly of wisdom on thorny political issues. the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to explain the moral difference between Gosnell’s acts and aborting those same infants just a few moments earlier.
Despite being hailed in some corners as a rhetorical smack down, Pelosi’s response contained all the logical rigor of Todd Akin’s unaccredited biology class. Which is why the Democrats wasted no time in searching for an Akin figure in the present abortion controversy.
Enter Trent Franks, a Republican congressman from Arizona. Speaking out against a Democratic amendment, Franks argued “the incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” This entered the lexicon with Akin’s musings about “legitimate rape” and the woman’s body being able to “shut that down,” a distant cousin of the myth that no pregnancy will result if the couple does it standing up.
But the abortion debate is deeply affected by both the question Akin clumsily confronts and the one Pelosi attempts to evade. The rape exception establishes that there is a limit to the trauma a woman experiencing unwanted pregnancy may be compelled to endure in order to vindicate the rights of the fetus.
Our society’s revulsion against Gosnell suggests there is a limit to the lethal violence that can be visited upon a human being in the early stages of development, even when acknowledging this runs counter to the mother’s immediate interests or wishes.
Many people who believe abortion is exactly what pro-lifers say it is—the illicit taking of an unborn child’s life—would nevertheless be reluctant to force a woman to carry her rapist’s baby. Many who believe abortion is about a woman’s right to choose would nevertheless be uncomfortable with the idea that a fetus is a baby if the woman wants it but a meaningless blob of tissue if she doesn’t.
In fact, there was a pro-life shift in the national polls as ultrasound technology advanced and politicians debated partial-birth abortion. In 2009, Gallup found that pro-lifers outnumbered pro-choicers for the first time, with pro-choicers hitting a record low in May 2012.
But by December 2012, after many reports about pro-life Republican men making ill-advised comments about rape and abortion, pro-choicers narrowly outnumbered pro-lifers again. In May 2013, adherents of both labels were roughly tied once again, with 48 percent preferring to describe themselves as pro-life to 45 percent pro-choice.
Many Americans are obviously flipping back and forth between the labels. Anecdotally, they seem to agree with pro-lifers about the nature abortion while sharing pro-choice fears that sweeping bans might unleash even greater evils.
Hard cases, the saying goes, make for bad law. A Georgia pro-life group lobbied against the House-passed abortion bill’s rape exception, seemingly swinging Rep. Paul Broun’s vote ahead of a Republican Senate primary.
One can respect where they’re coming from and still worry that if all pro-lifers took this position, hard cases would end up solidifying some of the worst laws of all.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?