A “Truce” on Abortion and Marriage?

Mr. Robert Heiler acquired part of his seasoning in politics by putting in a stint as a speechwriter for John McCain during the late presidential campaign – an assignment surely as enduring in its satisfaction as serving as a gag writer for Harry Reid. Heiler has sought to offer some instruction to those of who have taken Gov. Mitch Daniels at his word – and drawn dark implications from that word – when Daniels suggested that we ought to call a “truce” on the “social issues” of abortion and marriage as we move toward 2012. (See “The Strategy Behind Mitch Daniels’ Truce,” Real Clear Politics, February 19)

Heiler has come to tell us that “truce” does not mean “surrender.” Daniels’s concern is that the pro-lifers don’t turn away that vast middle cohort of “independents.” Those people tend to be indifferent to the matter of abortion and marriage, and may even recoil from those who seem to them overheated on these issues.

But Mr. Heiler delivers the wrong lecture on the meaning of the wrong words. On matters lexical, we need no instruction that “truce” does not mean “surrender.” But those of us who speak ordinary English took the urging of a “truce” to mean that we should not make those issues of abortion and marriage central issues in our politics. Or make them too prominent by insisting on talking about them, too often, too loudly, as though they were just too important to put aside. An old adage, stemming from Machiavelli, has it that when a wise man preserves his silence on a matter that everyone else thinks important, he gives us to understand that it is not really that important after all.

Of course, Gov. Daniels has other matters pressing immediately upon him, including a matter of high, strategic importance: scaling back the out-of-scale power of public service unions. But Gov. Daniels is perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Like the rest of us, he must encounter the experience of dealing with many problems hitting at once – problems with the job and children and illnesses in the family. Somehow the means are found to say something on all these questions, even if we have to put our main energies into the matter immediately pressing.

There can be no truce in pursuit of the right to life.

It is the inescapable function of the statesman to alert us to the things that are in principle important, even when most people do not especially care about them. Lincoln drew out for the public the implications of making slavery national in scope, and when he did, he broke the news through to large portions of the public that preferred, overall, not to think much about it.

Do people these days think that real human beings are killed in abortions? If so, about 1.2 million innocent lives have been taken every year without the need even to render a justification. In the scale of things, would the dismembering or poisoning of 1.2 million humans be as important as the level of unemployment? This country may still look the same twenty-five years from now even if we keep putting patches on Social Security. But it will not be the same country if marriage, already weakened, is cast anew on terms that alter its very meaning.

Of course, the strategic focus of politics at the moment is on the dramatic expansion of the power of the state, marked by the political takeover of medical care. But that does not require silence on everything else. Mr. Heiler and Gov. Daniels fail to notice that it is critical simply to put something on the table, even if it is quite modest. For even a modest bill can raise the critical points in principle.

As I’ve argued in these columns, the Republicans have the issue in hand with the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act (2002). We now know that the killing of babies who survive abortion occurs far more often than we had even imagined when the bill was passed. And yet that bill mainly planted premises in the law for the protection of the child; it contained no penalties. A Republican candidate for president can propose that we simply focus on this bill, which drew the support of Democrats and even of people who call themselves “pro-choice.”

And we pose the question of just what the penalty should be for killing a child born alive? Would it be more serious than a moving violation in traffic? But just to raise the question and draw attention to this part of the problem draws the attention of the public to every question of consequence contained in the matter of abortion.

When Gov. Daniels called for a “truce,” that was a clear sign to the media and the Democrats that he didn’t want to talk about those vexing issues of abortion and marriage. And of course, as William McGurn has pointed out, nothing will guarantee more that the media will be asking him about those matters in a persisting, needling way. One way or another, Gov. Daniels will be compelled to talk about these matters, even if he waves the flag of a truce. The question is whether he will talk about them on the terms framed by the media, or whether he will talk about them on the terms that he and the pro-lifers frame, with the focus pointed at the moral heart of the matter.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.