Special Report

Liberalism Unbound

Never having to say you shouldn't as a way of life -- and death.

By 8.17.06

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For more than three decades abortion has been primarily a legal fight centered on the Supreme Court's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Constitution. Political action has invariably been shaped by the prospect of judicial review. That process continues today, with South Dakota's recent approval of a blanket ban in response to the changed membership of the Court.

The pro-life lobby has been forthright in its position: abortion is wrong and should be banned. The other side, however, often has obscured its views. Those leading the fight against abortion regulation like to style themselves as pro-choice, but many of them really are pro-abortion.

The essential question of government is when to toss people into jail. Lots of human institutions attempt to mold behavior. Families, churches, neighborhood associations, clubs, advocacy groups, and more seek to persuade or set requirements for membership. Only government arrests and imprisons.

There's nothing inconsistent in arguing that abortion is an unfortunate procedure, but one that warrants private discouragement rather than state prohibition. The abortion lobby likes to present this view as its public face, and some Democratic politicians have done the same in order to improve their image among "values" voters.

For instance, President Bill Clinton opined that abortion was best kept legal but should be rare. Sen. Hillary Clinton has followed her husband's lead in attempting to triangulate the issue, expressing concern about the procedure while defending its legality. That's also the position of Catholic politicians who proclaim their personal opposition to the procedure while refusing to vote to ban it. They might not be good Catholics -- and all might be acting out of convenience rather than conviction -- but it's an intellectually defensible position.

Every so often the zealots come along and again remind us what the issue is really about, however.

Ms. magazine is one of the stalwarts of the feminist movement. Publishing its first regular issue in July 1972, the journal pressed for legal abortion before Roe v. Wade. Although today the magazine ranges into such curious areas as environmental feminism (is there a difference between being an environmental feminist or a feminist environmentalist?), abortion remains a core issue. Now Ms. magazine is asking its readers and others to celebrate the fact that they have had abortions.

The editors have added a "We Had Abortions" section to their website, which says the magazine is pursuing "a campaign for honesty and freedom." Just what does it mean to be honest and free in the view of Ms. magazine?

Explain the editors: "In its 1971 debut issue, Ms. magazine ran a bold petition in which 53 well-known U.S. women declared that they had undergone abortions -- despite state laws rendering the procedure illegal." Absurd as it was then, declares Ms., that abortion was illegal, "[i]t is even more absurd in 2006 to learn that an abortion ban has passed into law in South Dakota." Other states have imposed other restrictions, so "it is time again for women of conscience to stand up and speak truth to power."

Thus, the magazine is offering a new petition to "change the public debate." States Ms.:

It is time to speak out again--in even larger numbers -- and to make politicians face their neighbors, influential movers and shakers, and yes, their family members. We cannot, must not -- for U.S. women and the women of the world -- lose the right to safe, legal, and accessible abortion or access to birth control. Just as in 1972, Ms. will send the signed petitions to the White House, members of Congress and state legislators. We will also place the petition online. And we ask signers to make a contribution so Ms. can promote the petition and provide needed funds to fight abortion bans and support targeted abortion providers, such as the sole remaining women's clinic in Mississippi.

Ever so helpful, Ms. provides a form, "Women's Petition for Safe, Legal, and Accessible Abortion and Birth Control." Just check the box "I have had an abortion," and then decide whether you want your name in the magazine or on the website, or both. And, yes, there's also a line for you to make that generous donation.

In short, celebrate your decision to eliminate the life growing within you. Don't just celebrate it. Broadcast it to the world.

HOW LONG WILL IT BE before Ms. announces contests for the youngest and oldest abortion recipients? The person with the most abortions within a set period? And, of course, the most prolific aborter?

Ms. magazine offers no Clintonesque rhetoric about abortion being an unfortunate choice, a tragedy that should be minimized. Let the world know what you've done and demand that it stand by as others make the same decision.

Set aside the legal and political issue for a moment. Objectively, abortion is bad. Even the would-be mother pays a price. There's some evidence of a higher incidence of breast cancer among those who have an abortion. And there certainly is a psychological cost to abortion, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

More important, abortion kills.

We can quibble about when life begins. We can argue about the moral status of an embryo before implantation. We can discuss special justifications: life of the mother and rape, for instance. And we can respond compassionately to women caught in difficult circumstances who feel they have inadequate alternatives.

But once we've entered the continuum of life there's no obvious moral difference between a fetus at one month or eight months, or a child at one year or eight years. Surely an abortion is not something to celebrate. "I didn't feel like having another child, so I killed my baby," seems to be what signers of the Ms. list are saying.

Although the magazine expresses outrage that government might ban abortion, the state's most basic role is setting the rules for issues of life and death. True, there are few more intimate decisions than that to bear a child. Having government intervene is a second best for anyone committed to individual liberty and limited government.

But there is no liberty if the right to life is not respected. And liberty requires accountability. You must be responsible for the results of the free choices that you make.

Pregnancy is never a surprise. Absent rape, pregnancy cannot result other than by choice. To have sex.

Thus, most people having an abortion are cleaning up the mess resulting from a voluntary sexual encounter which they now regret. Abortion is not the only option, however. One reason adoption, foster care, and orphanages exist is because some people don't want to become parents. Carrying an unwanted baby to term is a significant imposition, but still a modest burden compared to ending a life. In this case, the law appropriately says: have sex if you want, but be prepared to take responsibility for any life that you create, even inadvertently.

OBVIOUSLY MS. MAGAZINE DISAGREES with this assessment. Still, the editors could couple their plea to keep abortion legal with advice to reduce its incidence. For instance, Ms. magazine might run a list of the names of people warning others against engaging in "unprotected" sex, and sex with someone other than one's partner. "We ignored the consequences of our actions and made a bad choice," they could say. Don't follow our bad example.

Or how about a petition signed by women who had undergone an abortion explaining what steps the rest of us could take to best discourage other women from undergoing the procedure? "We were wrong and don't want others to make the same mistake" could be the message. They could tell us what steps might have deterred them, and how to help reach women similarly situated today.

But Ms. magazine's signers seem to have no regrets. "We terminated a life, and we are proud that we did so," is the apparent message: "Don't hold us accountable for our actions, however inappropriate they might have been."

Some 45 million babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade created a largely unconstrained right to an abortion. That's hideous number. And one that should fill all of us, whether we've had an abortion or not, with regret.

Again, forget for a moment the political question whether abortion should be prohibited. Certainly it should be lamented. And discouraged. Honest liberals could agree on that.

But not Ms. magazine.

Although the legal fight remains important, the main battlefield for abortion these days is moral suasion. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, many states would likely keep the procedure legal. Which means people will have to be persuaded not to exercise their legal right. People will have to be convinced of what Ms. magazine does not understand: every abortion is a tragic outcome of a wrong decision.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).