The always-interesting John Zmirak disagrees with Lew Lehrman’s attempts to make abolitionists a model for the pro-life movement. Zmirak is right that centralizing, univeralizing ideology is more likely to lead to results pro-lifers and other social conservatives dislike than the other way around. The logic might also appear to justify violent antiabortion extremism. “We can’t,” Zmirak writes, “turn the pro-life movement into a Kantian, ideological monstrosity.”
There are definitely problems with Lehrman’s essay, and perhaps with the entire project of rooting the pro-life movement in excessively Declarationist grounds. But I’m not sure Lehrman’s basic premise has to lead in the precise direction Zmirak takes it. For one thing, Lehrman doesn’t come close to suggesting we should fight a Civil War over abortion. He specifically defends Lincoln’s political efforts against slavery, which prior to the war were fairly incrementalist (which is why some anti-Lincoln Civil War revisionists argue the 16th president was insufficiently abolitionist).
Furthermore, Lehrman doesn’t seem to be “suggesting that a set of natural rights” ought to be “discerned by intellectuals and imposed by judges.” Neither does he appear to be proposing “a totalizing system that enforce[s] ‘human rights'” in place of conservative if occasionally wrongheaded local subcultures. Instead Lehrman opposes the abortion and slavery rulings “imposed by judges” and urges pro-lifers to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over abortion, which would enable the “state-by-state approach to banning abortion” Zmirak supports. Lehrman is appealing to the conscience of the nation, hoping that the American people will use reason to discern natural law and have their elected representatives vote in the morally correct way.
A modest linkage between opponents of legal abortion and legal slavery can probably be defended: both groups oppose something widely practiced, recognized by law, and seen as indispensable to the economic livelihood and social fabric of its practictioners. Yet both movements, dominated by believing Christians, nevertheless recognized these accepted practices as moral evils perpetrated against their fellow human beings that must ultimately lose the sanction of law. The British anti-slavery movement might be a better parallel than the more radical American abolitionists — and the British succeeded earlier — but there are definitely some deeply American traditions to draw upon here.
The main thrust of Zmirak’s argument seems to be that Lehrman’s project is a politically pointless delusion. Abortion opponents will ultimately fail to win the image of moral authority held by abolitionists. I suspect Zmirak is right that it is probably easier to teach a slightly prejudiced pro-lifer to abandon racism than to make a committed anti-racist social liberal feel sympathy for the plight of the unborn. But there’s also good reason to believe that the pro-life movement’s ability to marshal liberal, rights-based arguments for its position — even this approach is not without its own problems — has made the pro-life cause accessible to people who would never, say, oppose same-sex marriage.
But the pro-lifer/abolitionist analogy is just that: an analogy that is imperfect and inevitably breaks down somewhere. To my mind, it works best as a cause for encouragement among pro-lifers: If abolitionists could succeed against a moral evil with such deep roots in law, custom, and culture as slavery, they should have some hope of overturning the abortion regime of the past 36 years.
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