The Melting of the Pro-Life Democrats

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As Justice Holmes taught us, it was the purpose of the modern project in law to remove the connection between morality and law. And yet that connection between the logic of morals and the logic of law cannot be removed. We convey the point to students in part in this way: If we come to the recognition that any act stands in the class of a “wrong” – that it is wrong, say, for parents to torture their infants – our next move is not to say, “therefore let us offer them tax incentives to induce them to stop.” Or “let us offer them a DVD player.” It strikes people, at once, as laughably obscene to make contracts or appeal to self-interest here.

The torturers are induced to stop only because we gratify some other interest of theirs, not because they have the sense of a “wrong” – something that no one ought to do, that anyone may rightly be punished for doing. The most natural reaction to a grave wrong is to respond with the moral voice of a command – a command that forbids the act to anyone, to everyone.

The people who offer the tax incentives or the DVD player would become accomplices themselves in obliterating any sense that we are in the presence of a “wrong.” The lesson here is an old one, but the temptation to evade or finesse the moral question must be quite as ancient, and for certain politicians it is irresistible. For the so-called “pro-life Democrats” it has become their chief operating fallacy. On this point there is no clearer example these days than that of Senator Robert Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania. The son of a famously pro-life father and governor, Casey has claimed to carry that pro-life banner, even as he helped to install, in control of the Congress, a Democratic majority that is militantly pro-abortion.

Casey’s protective coloring here, or his mode of harmonizing with his party, has come in part by accepting the dodge offered by Barack Obama: that he and his party would seek to reduce the number of abortions, and they would do it most notably by encouraging adoption. Adoption is a good thing, rightly encouraged. But when this path is touted as the response to abortion, it has the vice of avoiding any question about the rightness or wrongness of killing the child in the womb. Implicitly, this path of policy concedes the right of the pregnant woman to kill that child solely as it suits her own interest.

Senator Casey has taken a leading role in trying to make the massive bill on health care acceptable to pro-lifers. Over in the House, the Stupak Amendment, supported by sixty-four Democrats, virtually barred the government from using its funding, and the weight of law, to support abortions, whether in facilities or insurance plans public or private. The Senate bill has contrived means of concealing public funding by offering schemes, quite implausible, for separating public and private funds.

Senator Casey says he has done his best to resist those schemes. And he has also sought to preserve protections of “conscience” for doctors, nurses, and hospitals that do not wish to be conscripted into the service of performing abortions. On those points, he should readily be credited. But at the same time, all of these moves work within the cast of the understanding now orthodox in his party: that the right to abortion is central to the personal freedom protected in the Constitution, and it is not to be challenged.

In fairness, the same thing could be said about the moves pursued by Bart Stupak and his allies in both parties. They can resist the public funding of abortion while leaving the private right to abortion wholly unchallenged. But of course Stupak and the true pro-lifers have been willing to do far more. Casey’s predecessor in his Senate seat, Rick Santorum, was the sponsor of measures like the bill on partial-birth abortion or the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act, which actually sought to forbid certain kinds of abortions, and rescue lives marked for those “surgeries.” Stupak and many of his allies have been willing to support the same measures.

As Stupak estimates the Democrats standing with him, he reportedly thinks he can count on 10-12 votes to resist a Senate bill that rejects his amendment and supports abortion. That could be enough to defeat a bill that passed in the House by only five votes. But another savvy watcher of Capitol Hill tells me that Stupak may have only four or five votes. The pro-life votes among the Republicans will hold. Not so for the pro-life Democrats: they will be subject to all of the pressures that emanate from a party fiercely pro-abortion – and in power. Benefits will be dangled to buy them off, and threats may be made to deprive them forevermore of projects and funds for their districts. And so, the pro-life Democrats are melting away. But their demise was foretold by the logic they accepted in remaining in the party. They had to absorb the notion that the rightness of abortion could not be challenged in principle, that the protection of nascent life would always be a peripheral concern, always giving way to something more pressing. And the pro-lifers who keep voting to sustain them in that position have had to talk themselves into the same moral confusion.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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  • Willie

    The Money Vote
    And so Professor that contorted thinking fostered by euphemisms such as ” separation of church and state and freedom of choice ,” has allowed a pro-abortion president,and now controls congress as the pro-life Democrats follow their leader like dogs after a dangling peace of meat. How did this narcissistic forked tongued behavior infect our body politic? Is it because those original sell-evident truths of our founders have just been thrown aside? Is it time to take back those truths. Yes!

  • Jacob

    Professor Arkes is my hero!

  • blue8064

    Santorum Not Pro-Life
    Santorum is not pro-life either. On 09-13-1995, he voted to require that states have family caps in their welfare policies, and to require that states deny support for minors bearing children out of wedlock. However, such provisions will tempt the woman to abort the baby, and are therefore pro-abortion. The fact that they were requirements makes them all the more clearly pro-abortion. On the other hand, working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them raise children

  • Joseph

    The abortionist view
    I have a friend who argues that an abortion is merely a “D and C”, nothing more than a quick surgical procedure involving the removal of unwanted tissue, similar to having a wart removed from some part of the body.

    He then argues that if half the human race — men — are unable to have abortions, that should satisfy the pro-lifers. Trying to engage him on moral grounds is fruitless, and the arena must be legal. Edmund Burke says a bad law is the worse form of tyranny.

  • Rob

    “And the pro-lifers who keep voting to sustain them in that position have had to talk themselves into the same moral confusion.” As opposed to Prof. Arkes who, not that long ago in “First Things”, was considering backing Mayor Rudy if he got the GOP nod and assuring readers that Mitt Romney was the best candidate on life. Why care about GOD when we can care about the GOP and such Catholic candidates like pro-choice Rudy and flip flop Mitt?

  • Arkyunp

    Snake is still a snake
    Democrats remind me of the old joke of the rabbit saving the snake from the bitter cold on the mountaintop. A snake is still a snake, even a democrat pro-lifer. Their allegiance is always with the party, not with morality.

  • Jim Cole

    This slips into over-generalizing by party. Both parties will sell out on life–Republicans tend to do it more on the embryonic stem cell issue; Dems on abortion. Look at the sorry spectacle of Newt Gingrich campaigning for the pro-abortion Repub in New York last fall against a pro-life Conservative. When the Repub pulled out, she threw her support for the pro-abortion Dem, not the conservative. Newt & Repubs came up with egg on their faces. The “logic” is similar in both parties. Jim Cole

  • TeaPot562

    How Sad!
    The analysis of behavior on the part of Democratic representatives who supported Bart Stupak’s fight to get a realistic ban for Federal funds from being used for abortions may be realistic. But how sad! One thinks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands before condemning Jesus to death. He tried to duck responsibility for his action, but he still was responsible. How sad!

  • Hadley Arkes

    Correcting “Rob”
    “Rob” has offered a distorted view of what I’ve written–a performance typical for him. I wrote critically in opposition to Giuliani and I set off some minor tremors in the camp of Mr. Romney in my criticisms of him. But one has to be in a terminal haze not to see that even an Administration under Giuliani or Romney, with a Republican Congress, would not be seeking to sweep away every barrier in the law to abortion on demand. The differences between the parties on this matter are now stark.

  • Mr.Aukema

    Blue is very incorrect. Santorum’s stance on welfare is not related to “life issues”. In fact, in his senate race with Casey, the NYTimes, of all papers, supported Santorum for his work for the poor. While not popular among the progressives, The NYT piece maintains that his proposed caps and policies not only helped ease the states’ welfare burdens, but also were linked to lower jobless rates and decreasing unemployment.