Abortion: First Convince the Soul
Watching the first Bush-Gore debate, there was a point — there always is in these things — where I found myself sitting forward in my chair muttering to the face on the tube: "Say this! Why don't you say this?"
The point came in George W. Bush's response to the question about RU-486, the so-called (and, as Midge Decter has demonstrated on this web site, mis-called) "morning after" abortion pill. The pill itself — to be exact, the F.D.A.'s recent approval of it for prescription in the U.S. — was of course just a hook on which to hang the abortion issue. The country wants to know where the two candidates stand on abortion; or, in the maddeningly question-begging but now immovably entrenched jargon of current politics, the issue of "choice" versus "life."
The candidates' responses were dismally predictable. They consisted in finding an inoffensive form of words to say, in Bush's case, that he didn't like abortion but wasn't actually going to do much about it, and in Gore's, that he believes — or, at any rate, currently finds it expedient to pretend that he believes — the seeking and performing of abortion to be types of private conduct that should not be subject to any legal restraints at all.
The Vice President is — looking at the thing simply from the point of view of political tactics — on firmer ground with this issue: he has only to defend the status quo. Bush, if he is to satisfy the main body of his supporters (and he won't get elected if he fails to do that), has to offer some challenge, however limited, to the status quo. The status quo, of course, is universal availability of abortion on demand, in all states and to all ages and conditions of women. Well, here is what I should have liked to hear Gov. Bush say.
"The rights and wrongs of abortion divide the nation deeply. Large numbers of Americans care passionately about the issue; and those who care are about equally divided into pros and cons. Some tens of millions of Americans detest abortion; regard it, with varying degrees of qualification, as a kind of murder; and would, again with varying degrees of qualification, like to see it outlawed — at the very least, would like their own state to be able to outlaw it, without that decision then being over-ridden by federal authority.
"Tens of millions of other Americans believe, with equal ardor, that a developing fetus is part of a woman's own body, with no plausible rights of its own, and that the public authorities have no more business to dictate how the bearer of a fetus should care for it, or dispose of it, than they have to tell her when she should cut her hair. This latter group believe, correctly, that our rights over our own bodies are so fundamental that the highest authorities of our nation should affirm and defend those rights; and they further believe, disputably but sincerely, that a developing fetus is nothing more than a part of a woman's body.
"Feelings run hot, and the arguments, on both sides, reach deep into the most knotty problems that the human intellect confronts: problems of science, philosophy, ethics and jurisprudence. This is not a place to air those arguments. In this place, you seek only to know which side of this issue each candidate, personally, finds more persuasive; and what each candidate, publicly, would do, as Chief Executive, to promote one side or other. Here are my answers to those two questions.
"Personally, I believe that a developing fetus has rights — yes: rights like other rights enumerated in our Constitution and understood in our laws, rights that can be asserted and upheld in the courts — separate from the rights of its mother. I am therefore, in the jargon of our day, 'pro-life.'
"I hold this position for moral, ethical and religious reasons. I don't believe I can fairly be called a fanatic on the issue. I understand, of course, that the woman bearing the fetus also has rights, and that there may, as happens very often in law and morality, be cases where these two person's rights conflict, and further that in some of those cases of conflict the mother's rights should have precedence. I should be happy to argue these things at length in a more appropriate place; but in regard to what you need to know about my personal convictions: yes, I am 'pro-life.'
"As to the second thing you want to know — what I would do as Chief Executive to further my beliefs —let me first say what I would not do.
"I don't think it appropriate for a Chief Executive to employ all the powers of his office when such a deep, strong and evenly-balanced division exists in the nation. In cases like this, a president must try to persuade. He can preach, and argue, and cajole, and nudge; but he cannot impose. As an earlier Republican president remarked: 'Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law. The attempt to dragoon the body when the need is to convince the soul will end only in revolt.'
"A president is president of all the people, including those who disagree with him. He is in a unique position to advertise ideas he believes in and moral convictions he holds, and I can see nothing wrong in a president taking full advantage of that position; but he cannot impose his moral beliefs either directly through legislation or indirectly through appointments, when there is a large section of the people passionately unwilling to be imposed upon.
"Therefore no, I shall not initiate any legislation to outlaw abortion, except in the case of particular procedures — like partial-birth abortion — where there is a clear public consensus for prohibition. And no, I shall not regard anybody as unacceptable for nomination to high judicial office just because he or she disagrees with me on the moral status of abortion.
"I shall, however, for general reasons of principle and philosophy not especially related to this issue, give preference in appointments to judges who are more inclined to adhere to the actual language of the Constitution and less inclined to find hidden between the lines of that document permissions or prohibitions on matters that the Founders plainly never considered as being part of its scope.
"I shall not attempt to dragoon the body; but I shall do my utmost, as president, to convince the soul of America to see the issue as I see it, and to persuade opinion in our nation away from a state of affairs that I, personally, deplore with all my heart."