Conservatism Can’t Survive Without the Pro-Life Movement, Part I (Updated)

The more I reflect on The Great NewsReal Abortion Debate, the more convinced I am that I made a critical error.

I want to revisit the issue of whether or not the pro-life cause is central or peripheral to the conservative movement.  I made clear where I stood on that question—as an egregious deprivation of human rights, abortion should be opposed by every lover of liberty with every fiber of his or her being—but I fear I didn’t go nearly far enough in explaining the implications of the answer.  This essay will explore the practical aspects of the matter; my next one will address the moral and philosophical.

I conceded that I could “basically support” the kind of ‘truce’ David Swindle was talking about, i.e. candidates centering their campaigns on the “two unifying issues” of the free market and defeating Islamofascism. That’s more or less how wartime Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan have run for office anyway (in Reagan’s case swapping out Islamofascism for the Soviet Union), and that’s okay.  I don’t have a problem with our candidates emphasizing some issues more than others to put voters’ most immediate concerns front and center, or to address crises that demand immediate resolution.

However, that doesn’t exempt a candidate from talking about the right to life at all, or from being pro-life.  I have already argued that pro-life principles are inseparable from core conservatism, and that abortion cannot be regarded as merely one issue among many, and I’ll elaborate more on those points in the next post.  But it’s also important because whether or not one is capable of recognizing abortion for the evil that it is, and is willing to do something about it, tells us something about what he or she is made of. I know there are exceptions (Ron Paul is pro-life but deranged, Joe Lieberman is radically pro-abortion, but firm on the war), but I truly believe that strongly pro-life candidates will tend to be of a higher caliber than pro-choice candidates in several qualities that will benefit public servants, and the American people, in all areas:

More honest, rational, and trustworthy—Frankly, to defend or be indifferent to the willful destruction of innocent human beings requires an inescapable degree of moral blindness/irresponsibility, serious lapses in logical abilities, and/or scandalous ignorance of basic biology. If morally-sound, well-reasoned arguments for legal abortion that haven’t yet been discredited exist, I’m not aware of them.

More steadfast in the face of opposition—Stand for life, and you’re asking to be smeared as a religious tyrant who hates women, a trigger-happy nutcase, or just not sophisticated enough to see the ‘big’ picture.  Appease abortionism, and the press will grant you the coveted rank of ‘good’ or ‘respectable’ Republican, hailing your as a noble voice of reason in a party ruled by hate & ignorance.  Surely the fortitude to resist these forces and stick to principle under pressure is a highly desirable trait for any conservative—and avowed pro-lifers are nothing if not battle-hardened.

The Left loves their Mavericks (see Colin Powell, Arlen Specter, John McCain pre-2008), and would like nothing better than to see a GOP they can push around.  But their belligerence on the issue masks a fundamental weakness.  Sure, they’re quick to deem Roe v. Wade a “settled precedent” and “choice” a cherished women’s right.  Funny thing, though—mainstream liberals almost never discuss the issue on the merits.  They can’t.  They don’t want to.  Because they have no argument.

Why do you think they want to keep it as a matter for the courts, out of the people’s hands? Why do you think they bristle at describing abortion in terms more specific than “terminating pregnancies” or “the right to choose, their first instinct is to steer the heart of the matter toward anything except what an unborn baby is?  Why do you think public defenses of abortion almost universally carry caveats about being “personally opposed” to abortion, which is a “sad” or “tragic” thing that we can all agree there should be fewer of? Consider how leading Democrats defend their position:

Barack Obama“Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question [when a baby gets human rights] with specificity, y’know, is above my pay grade…I am pro-choice, I believe in Roe vs. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because ultimately I don’t think women make these decisions casually. They wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or spouses, or their doctors or their family members.”

John Kerry“I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist . . . who doesn’t share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America.”

Nancy Pelosi—“I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition … St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.”

Somewhat less than persuasive, no? If America really was having a national conversation about abortion, in which the Left had to regularly explain and defend what abortion consists of, that “constitutional right” wouldn’t look so untouchable—nor would politicians who defend the heinous practice.

Consider the phenomenon of pro-life Democrats.  The number of Democrats who at least campaigned as pro-lifers was big enough to almost kill ObamaCare (how’s that for demonstrating the ties between social & fiscal conservatism?). Presumably, they got into office thanks to voters without a strong commitment to limited government, but with strong reservations about abortion.

This only makes sense—the average voter isn’t grounded in the nuances of classical political or economic theory. He grows up in a world where a proactive, far-reaching, service-providing federal government is the established norm, and therefore has little reason to think things should be different—thriftier here, more effective there, but not a fundamentally different way of doing things (this is why Democrats get mileage out of simplistically demagoging issues like healthcare and the minimum wage).  Abortion, on the other hand, is a much easier concept for the layman to understand intuitively. The idea of killing an innocent child for convenience speaks directly to the human conscience, especially in an age where “when life begins” is no longer ambiguous and a single image can say more than any judicial or economic treatise:

And yet it’s supposed to make good political sense—and enlarge the “big tent” past “50.1%”—to give these voters no reason to even consider voting Republican?  Really?

As Ramesh Ponnuru explains, being visibly pro-life is actually a net gain for a politician, not a hindrance, because “surveys have consistently found that pro-lifers are more likely to vote on abortion than pro-choicers.” While there isn’t a clear majority for overturning Roe (partly due to misinformation over what Roe really says) or instituting a general abortion ban, the public does want more restrictions than current law allows, and they’re definitely to the right of the Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, on the issue.  Since Ponnuru made these observations in 2008, public opinion has only become more pro-life, with the fastest growth among young adults. There’s no reason the American people can’t or won’t continue in that direction, a) as long as the pro-life movement maintains its efforts on the hearts and minds front, and b) if our politicians actually talked to the American people about it once in a while.

Deep blue states aside, there’s no reason to think supporting life is a general election turn-off, and every reason to believe it’s an asset. Indeed, the only scenarios that carry real risks are the Right taking the pro-life vote for granted (pro-lifers are frustrated enough with the party for giving the cause little more than lip service), making them sit closer to the back of the bus than they already are, or kicking them off the bus entirely. Just as pro-life Democrats are supported by otherwise-liberal voters, we may be confident that a sizeable chunk of the GOP’s pro-life support comes from voters without strong inclinations on other issues (who, in some cases, probably vote Republican despite their other views, due to the gravity of abortion).

Before calling for “truces” on so-called “social” issues, left-leaning Republicans need to think long and hard about whether or not the new voters they expect to gain—if they materialize at all—will be enough to make up for the pro-life voters they could lose—especially considering that for the more religious among them, voting for a pro-choicer is a mortal sin, regardless of other considerations.  Whether or not they’re wrong is irrelevant: they are going to act on this conviction, regardless of the finger waving David Frum & Michael Medved have in store for them. “Big picture” Republicans who insist on a more socially-liberal party are playing with fire—and the rest of us are going to get burned.

UPDATE: Ponnuru’s 2007 piece on Rudy Giuliani’s failed candidacy speaks powerfully to these concerns as well, and demands to be read in full. Just one of many, many points the Right’s elites should stop and think about:

In 2004, George W. Bush carried 80 percent of voters who chose their candidate based on “moral values,” but lost 80 percent of voters who cited “jobs” and “the economy” as their top issues. The New York Times that year ran a story about voters in swing states such as Ohio and Iowa who were torn between the presidential candidates: They thought their economic interests lay with John Kerry, but their values lined up with Bush. Nominating Giuliani would make such voters’ choices a lot easier. (And that’s leaving aside the possibility of a party split, a convention walkout, or a third-party challenge.)

UPDATE II: For those truly interested in understanding both the politics and principles of abortion, I cannot recommend Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life highly enough.


9 thoughts on “Conservatism Can’t Survive Without the Pro-Life Movement, Part I (Updated)

  1. So is the war against Islamic Nazism the #1 priority when deciding who to vote for or isn’t it?

    I see a lot of talk… but for what? Theorize all you want but it’s the practical that matters. And I see very little as far as concrete

    That abortion is murder may be inseparable from your conservatism but that doesn’t mean it’s a key component of all conservatisms. If you want to start saying that all conservatives who don’t want to criminalize abortion aren’t really conservatives then I suppose you could do that…


    • I’ll get to the matter of the war in Part II.

      I’m glad you bring up the practical – I see zero evidence that deemphasizing or ditching the right to life would do anything to help Republican electoral prospects, and every reason to believe that it would actually *endanger* Republicans’ ability to win elections.

      Non pro-lifers certainly can have plenty of other conservative beliefs, but the fact is that they are failing to carry conservatism’s premises to their logical conclusions, or to consistently apply conservative principles.


  2. What?! Your argument was about getting people into office who support the free market & fighting terror, and you centered it around the proposal of a Republican candidate. Substitute “conservative” for “Republican” if you like, but it’s safe to assume the candidates you’re talking about are rarely going to come from the Democratic Party. And I also intended this post to address the Frums and Medveds whose primary concern is the GOP’s electoral prospects.

    Let me rephrase it, then: there is no reason to believe ignoring the pro-life cause would be beneficial to anti-Islamofascism candidates, and every reason to believe it would, if anything, endanger their ability to win elections.


    • You’re framing this as “well it would be best for the GOP if they don’t throw pro-life ideas under the bus.” But I don’t really care about what’s best for the GOP. What I care about is defending free societies from Islamic Nazism.

      There are plenty of people in the Democratic Party who can be pro-life, pro-Israel, hawkish, etc. And if it’s a choice between a hawkish, pro-choice, centrist Democrat and a pro-life Republican who’s AWOL on fighting Islamofascism…

      Ideas are more important than parties.


      • Again, as I said, I’ll get to the question of the war in part II. For now, I’ll just say that I’m certainly willing to vote for a good Democrat over a bad Republican, but the question seems decidedly more academic and theoretical than anything I’ve put forth. Even if there are Democrats strong on the war (and I don’t count Weiner & Biden in that category – one good statement about Israel doesn’t outweigh their positions on all the other national security & foreign policy questions), how often do you actually have a scenario where their Republican opponent is anti-war?

        “Daniels argues that the country cannot be put back on track with a coalition of 50.1 percent. The Conservative tent must grow larger if we’re to avoid becoming Greece.”

        What I’m concerned about is whether or not that coalition 50.1 percent would grow larger if we adopted your course of action (or the even more radical course of action others dictate). The evidence seems to suggest a resounding no.


  3. I find the evidence you’re looking at (that’s more than half a decade old) largely irrelevant in the context of a new generation rising and a culture changing. And again, is the objective an empowered Conservative Movement or a GOP?


    • Wait a minute. What do I cite “that’s more than half a decade old”? I cite:

      – The ObamaCare abortion funding mess (2010)
      – Polling data from 2007-2010, which shows momentum in one direction, suggesting the right to life won’t be a deal-breaker for the next generation
      – Several observations about the mindset of pro-life voters and the instinctive resonance of the issue vs. mere economic issues, which are not time-sensitive judgments
      – The Bush-Kerry point is over half a decade old, but it still shows that, to the extent that we have data on this question, it doesn’t show what your side says it does.

      As for the changing culture, conservatism has never been about blindly following whatever the culture dictates.

      Of course the objective is an empowered conservative movement. But showing America we’re no different than the Left on the question of human rights will do nothing to empower us.


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