Learning from Lincoln on Abortion

The overturning of Roe v. Wade has returned the issue of abortion to our political branches. Unfortunately, they don’t seem entirely prepared to deal with it. Eight score years ago, a great American led the political debate on another highly contentious moral issue. It may seem surprising that from the vantage point of 2022 Abraham Lincoln can speak to the issues confronting us, but on the issue of abortion the Great Emancipator can teach us a lot. 

In an exceptional essay published in the middle of the Roe era, Maureen Condic looked to Lincoln for his example. She recognized that the belief an embryo doesn’t merit legal protection relies on a trio of claims about the embryo’s human status, or lack thereof: that the embryo lacks sufficient human form; that it lacks sufficient human ability; and that the convenience afforded by abortion overrides any consideration of the embryo’s humanity. As Condic insightfully observed, such arguments based on form, ability, and convenience mirror the arguments made in the 19th century over slavery. 

In a note to himself, thought to have been written on July 1, 1854, Lincoln dealt with each of these three in turn, starting with form:

“It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.”

He proceeded to ability:

“You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore, have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.”

He concluded with convenience:

“But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”

However specious may be the arguments in support of slavery based on form or ability—with the former being superficial and the latter resulting almost inevitably from the denial of education—form and ability claims are aruably even less compelling in the case of abortion. For if the embryo is merely allowed to develop, he or she will acquire a form like that of the mother and father. Undisturbed, his or her abilities will likewise grow to match theirs. So, we are left with convenience as the remaining—and primary—rationale for abortion, which shifts the argument from the plane of justice to the realm of power.

The always clear-thinking and honest Camille Paglia echoes the notion that it is power that’s in play when it comes to abortion. While Paglia is strongly “pro-abortion”—she calls the “pro-choice” label “a cowardly euphemism”—she nevertheless observes the following: “Abortion pits the stronger against the weaker, and only one survives.”

Paglia favors “unrestricted access to abortion,” yet she says, “I profoundly respect the pro-life viewpoint, which I think has the moral high ground.” She writes, “We career women are arguing from expedience; it is personally and professionally inconvenient or onerous to bear an unwanted child. The pro-life movement, in contrast, is arguing that every conception is sacred and that society has a responsibility to protect the defenseless.”

It is this responsibility to protect the weak and defenseless that invites a potential government role on abortion. In another note apparently written on the same day as the one cited above, Lincoln writes, “The legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.’” He asserts that there is a role for government in providing positive goods—he lists “roads,” “bridges,” “common schools,” “disposing of deceased men’s property,” and “providing for the helpless young and afflicted.” 

Lincoln then writes, “But a far larger class of objects springs from the injustice of men. If one people will make war upon another, it is a necessity with that other to unite and cooperate for defense . . . If some men will kill, or beat, or constrain others . . . it is a common object with peaceful and just men to prevent it.” The primary role of government, in other words, is to prevent the unjust deprivation by some, of the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of others

Nor are the rights of life and liberty genuinely in tension when it comes to abortion. Every adult is naturally endowed with the liberty to engage in acts that might lead to life, but such liberty does not extend to a right to terminate that newly created life. 

Lincoln’s example is also worth following in other ways, such as in stating matters plainly and cutting to the chase. Lincoln said, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Likewise, it may seem strange that a “women’s right” would so often involve violently ending the life of another female because of a desire to avoid having a girl. 

Beyond this, however, Lincoln also provides a crucial example of prudence. While he regarded slavery as a moral evil—“slavery is wrong,” and one “cannot say people have a right to do wrong”—he did not push to end slavery where it was already entrenched and constitutionally protected in the South. Rather, he steadfastly opposed its extension into the Western territories and states. 

With abortion, the circumstances are different. Those who are pro-life obviously wouldn’t be satisfied with allowing the practical effects of Roe to continue long after the overturning of Roe, and there is no such profound distinction today between different regions of the country in terms of level of entrenchment or constitutional protection (although abortion is certainly more accepted in certain areas than others). But Lincoln’s example is nevertheless instructive. Lincoln knew—but many pro-lifers often forget—that “public sentiment is everything” in a republic. One must win the argument before one can change the laws. 

Northwestern professor David Zarefsky writes that even as Lincoln constantly sought to mold public sentiment, he held that it was “an appropriate constraint on advocacy.” For Lincoln, writes Zarefsky, the “bounds of permissible action are set by a public, by citizens who are not pawns to be manipulated by leaders, but active participants in a civic dialogue. Responsible advocates recognize and respect this constraint.”

Lincoln’s example of fighting to achieve all that can reasonably be achieved in a given moment, while not trying to force the adoption of one’s own beliefs if, or where, they are hopelessly unpopular, should inform the actions even of those who regard something as a moral evil, as a deprivation of natural rights, and as a barbaric act unfit for a civilized people. 

Rather than pushing unpopular legislation that bars abortion altogether, or very nearly so, in states where opinions about abortion are roughly evenly divided—or where public opinion is in favor of allowing abortion—those who oppose abortion would be better off recognizing the importance of shaping public opinion by exposing the weaknesses in the pro-abortion position. Pro-lifers should push for limits on abortion that are tied to a developing child’s heartbeat or capacity for pain; for requirements that mothers view ultrasounds before choosing whether to end their developing child’s life; and for stopping the unjustifiable attacks on crisis pregnancy centers. 

At the same time, pro-lifers should ask abortion advocates the uncomfortable but pivotal question of where life begins. Is it really at birth, as the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act—recently backed by 49 senators (every Democrat but Joe Manchin)—suggests? Pro-lifers should also ask abortion advocates whether a developing child in the womb is a human life—whether he or she is alive and is a member of the species homo sapiens—and whether there is any point before, or perhaps even after, birth, when laws should prevent the termination of that young life. Such questions are crucial for illuminating the issue and molding public sentiment.

After 49 years of the Supreme Court’s having asserted, however willfully and extra-constitutionally, that abortion is a constitutional right, pro-lifers cannot reasonably expect all Americans to flip the switch and suddenly regard abortion not as a right but as a violation of a right—no matter how true and just that assertion is. Great political battles require powerful reasoning, persuasive arguments, and careful strategizing. That potent combination led to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, perhaps the finest Supreme Court ruling in nearly 200 years. Now that same combination is needed for the ensuing political battles. Thankfully, Lincoln has already charted a path that wise pro-lifers can travel.

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