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Moralism in politics
From abolition to abortion
Many people like to imagine they would have been on the right side of history had they lived back then. Not infrequently an act of imagination is indeed required. Over the years I have spoken to the Daughters of the American Revolution and kindred groups, and I have developed great respect for the attention their activities bring to that formative period of American history. But having come to know a bit of the background and predilections of many of the members, I haven’t been able to resist pointing out—tactfully, I hope—that had they been alive during the 1770s, they probably would have been Loyalists rather than Patriots, doing their best to foil the effort they now celebrate.
A similar effect can be seen in retrospections on slavery. Few people today are willing to admit they would have been anything but abolitionists. I recently wrote a book about John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, and, although this was not my intention, Brown elicits the more positive reaction among my readers. Brown saw issues clearly and acted decisively, while Lincoln perceived ambiguity and moved cautiously. Brown’s excesses—the murders he directed in Kansas, his attempt to arm slaves and provoke them to an uprising in Virginia—are excused by his modern fans because he turned out to be on the right side of history, where they imagine they would have been.
This might be a harmless curiosity if it didn’t have implications for the present. Perhaps the closest modern parallel to the abolitionists is the anti-abortion movement. Like the abolitionists, the anti-abortionists assert great urgency in defending the rights of those victimized by American law and practice. Like the abolitionists, the anti-abortionists tend to be one-issue voters. To the former, nothing was more important than freedom for the slaves; to the latter, nothing is more important than the right to life for the unborn. Most abolitionists were not violent, but some—like John Brown—were; most anti-abortionists are not violent, but some are. Like the abolitionists, the anti-abortionists speak and act with moral conviction that comes from the essential selflessness of their position. The abolitionists didn’t stand to gain materially from freedom for the slaves, nor do the anti-abortionists expect a worldly return on their investment of time and effort on behalf of the unborn.
The parallel seems straightforward to me, yet when I raise it to audiences, I often encounter shock and hostility. Those most offended are liberals who imagine they would have been abolitionists in the nineteenth century but are vehemently opposed to the actions of the anti-abortionists now.
Their rejoinder is that I’ve missed the heart of the abortion debate. It’s not about the unborn, they say, but about the rights of women. And the anti-abortionists, they continue, far from being the heirs of the abolitionists, are in truth the heirs of the slaveholders. They want to hold modern women in bondage much as the slaveholders held the slaves in bondage.
I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this argument. The people who make it appear honestly committed to their point of view. Sometimes I simply accept their sincerity and let the matter drop, acknowledging that historical parallels are always imperfect.
But on other occasions I point out that apologists for slavery were sincere, too. Of course often their sincerity coincided with their self-interest in preserving slavery, but this didn’t necessarily make them less sincere. And many of the defenders of a woman’s right to choose have a self-interested stake in the abortion debate, namely their own right to choose.
The larger point is what history says about the intractability of political issues that have entered the moral sphere. It is unnecessary to point out that the debate over slavery did not end well. It triggered the worst war in American history. The moralism of the abolitionists was by no means the only cause of the Civil War, but the extremes to which abolitionists like John Brown took their moral views made a peaceful resolution of the slavery issue much more difficult. As the slaveholders found themselves literally under attack, they imputed the extremism of Brown to moderates like Lincoln, refusing to believe Lincoln’s assurances that he and the Republicans weren’t determined to crush slavery and dispossess the slaveholders.
We should all hope the abortion debate produces no similar disaster. Yet it is hard to see where compromise might come. Both sides in the debate have strong views about the morality of their positions. Each side considers compromise with the other immoral.
The latest salvo in the abortion wars, the Texas law effectively forbidding abortions, and the Supreme Court's refusal to block the law's implementation, suggest that the conflict is sharpening. The Supreme Court quite possibly will overturn Roe v. Wade, and a Republican Congress might be emboldened to pass a national law banning or severely restricting abortions.
At that point liberal states like California may feel that the rights of their citizens are no longer safe in the Union. When Southern states felt that way in the early 1860s, eleven of them left the Union. Would California, perhaps joined by equally liberal Oregon and Washington, try to secede? If they did, would the rest of the country resist forcibly?
These questions are sobering even to ask. Sobering enough, one hopes, to inject some humility and pragmatism into the moralism of the abortion debate. Reasonable people ought to be able to find a compromise along the lines most Americans appear to want, with abortion legal yet somewhat limited.
But don’t expect any help from the moralists.