Political Hay

The Fallacy of “Personally Opposed, But…”

The ultimate test for politician on the make.

By 4.30.07

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"I'm in the same position now that I was 12 years ago, when I ran for mayor, or as mayor, which is personally opposed to abortion, don't like it, hate it, would advise that woman have an adoption, rather than an abortion. And I will help you find the money for it. ...But it's your choice. It's an individual right. You get to make that choice."
-- Rudy Giuliani, CNN interview, April 5, 2007

THERE ARE TWO THINGS Republican Presidential Candidate Rudy Giuliani wants voters to know about where he stands on abortion.

Number one: He hates it.

Number two: If elected president, he wouldn't do a thing to restrict it, and, based on recent comments, would force taxpayers to fund it.

Seasoned political observers will recognize Giuliani's verbal gymnastics as the "personally opposed, but..." position on abortion, which is short for, "I am personally opposed to abortion but wouldn't impose my beliefs on a public with diverse moral and religious views."

Speaking in New Hampshire in late April, Giuliani was even more candid about his position, saying, "I think you can be personally opposed to it, hate abortion, respect somebody else's conscience who might make a different decision..."

It is a position long-employed by abortion advocates as they attempt to reconcile their personal opposition to abortion with their public support of it.

Recently, however, "personally opposed, but..." (or variations thereof) has emerged as the default position on abortion for a number of prominent "pro-choice" politicians seeking the presidency. Back in 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry insisted he was "personally opposed" to abortion; Hillary Clinton has called it "a sad, tragic choice"; and Barack Obama has described it as a "personal tragedy."

Strong words, especially considering that all three have 100 percent ratings in support of abortion from Planned Parenthood (America's leading abortion seller), and all four (including Giuliani) embrace perhaps the most extreme abortion policy: public funding.

Then there's Mitt Romney, who in 2005 insisted he was "personally pro-life," even as he pledged not to alter Massachusetts' liberal abortion laws if he were re-elected governor.

So, what's the political calculus behind this contradictory position on abortion?

"Personally opposed, but..." is the predictable result of two conflicting trends in abortion politics today. While the abortion lobby has seen its influence grow over the past few years (abortion-rights groups donated three times as much as pro-life groups during the 2006 election cycle), polls reveal an increasingly pro-life electorate that's less receptive to the extreme agenda of the abortion movement (Emily's List, the largest abortion political action committee, won just two of 19 competitive House races it funded in 2006).

"Personally opposed, but..." attempts to capture the middle ground between these two sharply contrasting realities. A pro-abortion politician can appease the powerful abortion lobby by voting for abortion, then, with a wink and a nod, employ words like "tragedy" and "morally opposed" to signal to voters that he is a compassionate person who understands that the decision to have an abortion is, as Senator Clinton has said, "a profound and complicated one."

Yet, while "personally opposed, but..." seeks the reasonable middle ground on abortion, it contains a glaring and fundamental flaw.

When somebody says he "hates" or is "morally opposed" to abortion, he begs the question: Why, exactly, do you hate/oppose abortion? The answer, certainly, is that he believes what is being aborted is a human being deserving of at least some of the natural human rights all people possess. He may also believe -- if he acknowledges the developing consensus in the academic community -- that abortion can have adverse effects on the physical and mental health of women.

If he didn't consider the unborn child a human being and/or didn't think that abortion hurt women, there would be little reason for him to oppose it, especially with words like "wrong," "hate" and "tragedy."

In other words, if the child in utero were merely a "cluster of cells" and if the effects of abortion on women were "mainly positive," as Planned Parenthood insists, why would anyone oppose it on a personal, or any, level?

No one would, of course, which is what makes the "personally opposed, but..." position so dishonest (and why it is in a very real sense a more deplorable position than that of the abortion advocate who fails to recognize the essence of abortion).

To acknowledge the grave injustice of abortion yet still promote its perpetuation is like saying: "I'm opposed to slavery but think it ought to be left to each plantation owner to decide (a popular position, incidentally, during the age of slavery), and in the meanwhile I'll pass laws re-affirming the practice and forcing all taxpayers -- even those who are "personally opposed" to slavery -- to pay for it."

In the end, the "personally opposed, but..." position on abortion cloaks itself in reason and compassion; but, it is merely a rhetorical device that shields the politician who refuses to follow through on in public what he purports to believe in private. As Thomas More says in A Man For All Seasons, "...when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties...they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

An April Gallup Poll asked Americans an open-ended question about the most important quality they are looking for in the next president. A third of respondents (a strong plurality) stated that "honesty" and "straightforwardness" are paramount. Sadly, as more prominent politicians embrace the "personally opposed, but..." position on abortion, voters may find few honest candidates remain when it comes to the fundamental issue of life and death.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.