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FGF Op-Ed
THE REACTIONARY UTOPIAN
January 22, 2020

Newborn in hands of parents

Crucial Issue Politics

A classic by Joe Sobran
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation

[Publisher’s Note: On this 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court legalizing abortion in America, Joe Sobran examines pro-abortion polemics.]

Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions, Winter 1982 — Abortion might be called the single issue about which you mustn't be a single-issue voter. Civil rights, Israel, farm policy, nuclear energy, entitlement programs, whales – you can be down-right obsessive about any of these, and nobody will say boo.

Remember? Around 1970 all we heard about was rape and incest and "the tragic choice."

Come to think of it, any political lobby is likely to be a single-issue affair. Even the hated oil lobby isn't criticized for not branching out into snail darters or something. Why is the charge of single-issue politics – well, a charge?

We should probably refuse to take the charge at face value. The pro-abortion side hasn't been what I would call ingenuous. They specialize in footage of babies with spina bifida and other terrible birth defects, when in fact most women or couples who decide to abort don't wait around to find out whether the blessed non-event would have brought deformity into the family: they just want to get rid of the thing. As everyone knows, really.

In 1973 abortion had abruptly ceased being an evil which only legalization could hygienically contain; guided by the Supreme Court, we were instructed that abortion was a "religious issue" about which "nobody could say" whether it was right or wrong.

This fall Mike Wallace did a Sixty Minutes segment on Henry Hyde, of Hyde Amendment fame, laying a trap into which the Congressman stepped like a big bear in innocent pursuit of honey. Interviews with Hyde were interrupted by shocking cuts to shots of deformed babies, raped 12-year-olds, and other-than-typical subjects. Thanks to the miracle of film editing, Hyde came across less as pro-life than pro-deformity.

Pro-abortion polemics center around the hard cases so much that you begin to wonder if there are any easy cases. Apparently not. The pro-abortion side can't let go of those hard cases. After all, the movement for legalization began with hard cases, rape and incest being the staples of any diet of pro-abortion rhetoric. Of course there may be easy cases in real life, but film editors – the unacknowledged legislators of the McLuhan era – seem never to have heard of them.

Remember? Around 1970 all we heard about was rape and incest and "the tragic choice." In 1973 abortion had abruptly ceased being an evil which only legalization could hygienically contain; guided by the Supreme Court, we were instructed that abortion was a "religious issue" about which "nobody could say" whether it was right or wrong. By 1976 it was a "basic human and constitutional right" which a few unnamed religious fanatics – acting on sealed orders from Rome – were bent on snatching away from us. Jack Newfield, a commentator on CBS Radio's Spectrum, has even accused Jesse Helms, sponsor of the Human Life Bill, of trying to establish a "theocracy," presumably a restoration of the popish regime first imposed in 1789.

Joe Sobran

As nearly as I can make out, the present pro-abortion orthodoxy can be summed up in the formula: the more abortions, the better. Nobody should ever be saddled with an "unwanted child." Whoever is forbidden an abortion is a victim of "compulsory pregnancy," to use a phrase coined by the National Abortion Rights Action League. (By the same token, a man who is forbidden to do away with his wife's obnoxious mother is doomed, I suppose, to compulsory son-in-law hood.)

By 1976 it was a "basic human and constitutional right" which a few unnamed religious fanatics – acting on sealed orders from Rome – were bent on snatching away from us.

It is vital to keep things straight. Opposing abortion is "single-issue politics." Favoring abortion isn't. NARAL people, who keep sending out form letters accusing their opponents of firebombing clinics, are manifestly well-rounded human beings – fully human, as they might say.

Adjustments in the vulgar idiom are indicated. Having an abortion is not "murder," of course: by now everyone knows it's only a matter of "terminating a pregnancy." Unborn infants are of course "fetuses," although after termination they become "products of pregnancy." But it's still acceptable to say "rape" and "incest" rather than "involuntary intercourse" and "excessive family intimacy." Nobody is "with child" any more; one is merely "pregnant," not "with" anything particularly. True, some women still say things like "the baby [sic] is kicking," but that merely shows that they are insufficiently open to new ideas. I even saw a book at a newsstand titled Caring for Your Unborn Baby, when the author obviously meant Caring for Your Fetal Matter. But such gaffes are probably protected under the First Amendment.

As nearly as I can make out, the present pro-abortion orthodoxy can be summed up in the formula: the more abortions, the better. Nobody should ever be saddled with an "unwanted child." Whoever is forbidden an abortion is a victim of "compulsory pregnancy," to use a phrase coined by the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Then too, there was Louise Brown, who caused such excitement that everyone forgot themselves – even Time and Newsweek! – and blurted out "test-tube baby." To be precise, we should have described her as a baby who had originated from a fertilized egg in a dish, where she – or rather it – had been "part of its mother's body," albeit on furlough. Oops – did I say "mother"? Well, you know what I meant. Just a figure of speech. Give me a few more months.

Many of us need a few more months, maybe years. It is still less than a decade since the Supreme Court imposed its view on – or rather, "expanded the constitutional right of privacy" to include terminating a pregnancy. Only the anti-abortion side would "impose its views" on everyone else. They, not the judiciary, are "divisive." When a majority of the Supreme Court contradicts the Western moral tradition and the laws of 50 states into the bargain, anything other than instant unanimity of assent indicates that a divisive spirit is abroad. And so, alas, it is.

Greatly to the annoyance of the pro-abortion side, there are still millions of women who say things like "the baby is kicking" when they mean that one part of their bodies is creating an involuntary disturbance within another part. We seem to have two classes of people speaking two different languages, one refined, one coarse-much as England had after the Norman Conquest. But then, as George Orwell pointed out, it takes some time for a new language to really take hold.

It is vital to keep things straight. Opposing abortion is "single-issue politics." Favoring abortion isn't.

And it has become clear that this new language is going to need a long, long time. At first the pro-abortion side assumed that Roe vs. Wade, like Brown vs. Board of Education, would find a gradual, if sullen, acquiescence. What they overlooked was that racial segregation ran counter to the moral sentiments of most Americans. Even its defenders were defensive. With abortion, the shoe is on the other foot.

Abortion violates every decent human instinct – so much so that its indecency must be clothed in euphemism. Its champions try to enlist compassion with an endless parade of hard cases, and to invoke snobbery by sneering at their opponents. Beyond that, they have tried to rule out, on procedural grounds, the very instincts that work against them: opposition to abortion, they say, is "religious," ergo inadmissible in the political process. NARAL and the American Civil Liberties Union even determined, through surveillance, that Henry Hyde is a practicing Catholic – which he might have admitted anyway – and triumphantly adduced this fact in a federal appeals court to prove the Hyde Amendment unconstitutional. (Judge John Dooling actually bought this argument, only to be overruled – narrowly – by the Supreme Court itself.)

Abortion violates every decent human instinct – so much so that its indecency must be clothed in euphemism.

An even curioser argument was made by the President of Yale University, A. Bartlett Giamatti, in his widely publicized attack on the Moral Majority. Among many other charges, he accused the religious Right generally of "presuming to say when life begins, which God alone knows." He did not explain how the president of Yale alone knows which things God alone does and does not know, though it must be remembered that the president of Yale has access to the Yale Divinity School, and Ivy League theology is not to be confused with Ivy League football. In any case, analysis is unnecessary: the point is that the opposition to abortion is intellectually infra dig. We have it on the authority of the commissioner of the intellectual Big Leagues.

How can one know which things God alone knows? The position is curious in principle. It is one thing, after all, to say that you personally don't know whether God exists. But a more general agnosticism – holding that nobody else can 'know either – is already a highly dogmatic doctrine. It means that although there may actually be a Creator, He is so unknowable that He cannot even communicate His own existence to his own creatures – He can press his nose against the glass, so to speak, and yell and bang, but we can never hear Him. This is quite a specific thing to know about an unknowable Being. It is a bit like saying that we can't know whether King Arthur ever really lived, but if he did he must have been deaf and dumb.

Only the anti-abortion side would "impose its views" on everyone else. They, not the judiciary, are "divisive."

Giamatti's ignorance is not quite so arrogant as that, but he apparently meant to say that God has said nothing one way or the other about abortion and has given us nothing to go on either. Does this mean that neither the Bible nor the Church offers grounds for a position? Or does it mean that Giamatti rejects the authority of both? If the latter, did he mean to imply to the incoming freshmen to whom his words were addressed that they should reject the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Or what? (Some commentators insist that Giamatti's words, being interpreted, mean, "I will soon announce my candidacy for the Senate.")

I understand a fury in the words, though not the words, and the fury is against anyone who insists that we must, as a political society, hold that abortion is wrong. Of course nobody would make abortion compulsory, just as Stephen Douglas never meant that every white man should be forced to own a slave. But, says Giamatti (speaking for many), it is immoral to say that abortion is immoral, even though one is free to think so.

When a majority of the Supreme Court contradicts the Western moral tradition and the laws of 50 states into the bargain, anything other than instant unanimity of assent indicates that a divisive spirit is abroad. And so, alas, it is.

What people mean when they call anti-abortion people "single-issue voters" is that you may disagree with them about the wrongness of abortion, but you must not disagree with them about its importance. You must not give it priority over other issues. You must not regard it as one of those issues that are crucial in determining what sort of society we are.

And that, of course, is the very position opponents of abortion generally take. They care about it intensely because they care about it at all. To subordinate it to all other issues would be for them to adopt the premises of their adversaries; and this, in the nature of the case, is impossible.

Is their instinct right? There is some empirical evidence to support them. Some million and a half abortions are now performed in the United States every year. Many of these are late term abortions that cause horrible pain to the child. Surely one needn't agree that a human fetus is "fully human" at that point to agree that it isn't just nothing, a nothing whose pain has no moral significance.

We were assured that having fewer unwanted children would mean a reduction in child abuse. But, as the daily news reports attest, that problem is grimmer than ever. So are the problems of illegitimacy and venereal disease. Why?

Social scientists do a lot of talking about the "unanticipated consequences" of social policy; which is only right, since results usually differ from intentions in this world. In the Sixties we were assured that massive social programs would eliminate the "root causes" of crime better than penal severity. Today, after more than a decade of social spending on an enormous scale, the crime problem is worse than ever. Some analysts contend that the supposed solution has actually aggravated the problem, by creating a welfare culture of dependence that destroys the work ethic and undermines the family.

There is good reason to think legal abortion has had similarly unanticipated consequences. We were assured that having fewer unwanted children would mean a reduction in child abuse. But, as the daily news reports attest, that problem is grimmer than ever. So are the problems of illegitimacy and venereal disease. Why?

The intention of legal abortion is to make abortion available to women who truly need it. But when there is no objective standard, anyone who wants one will decide she "needs" one.

One can only speculate. But it may be that, as welfare weakens the work ethic, abortion weakens the family ethos. If the right to abort resides solely in the mother, the father – more often the culprit in many abuse cases – may still find himself burdened with an unwanted child. (Though the mother's live-in lover is disproportionately prominent in reports of child murders.)

The intention of welfare entitlements is to supply only the "truly needy," as if they were somehow a sharply distinguishable class. The idea is that they will know who they are, and will step forward to collect benefits, while others (with a few exceptions, of course) will abstain from making false claims. Obviously it doesn't work that way. Welfare is less a temporary expedient for many people than an addictive way of life.

Whatever the editorial rhetoric may suggest about abortion sparing the child miseries attendant upon unwantedness, the real motive for abortion is nearly always selfish.

The intention of legal abortion, in a similar way, is to make abortion available to women who truly need it. But when there is no objective standard, anyone who wants one will decide she "needs" one. Probably no one has ever predicted that he or she would ever abuse his or her own child anyway.

The very idea of a "right" not to have unwanted children implies a priority of parental desires over children's right to live. Whatever the editorial rhetoric may suggest about abortion sparing the child miseries attendant upon unwantedness, the real motive for abortion is nearly always selfish. There is no automatic coincidence of interest between parent and child. Pro-abortion rhetoric sends out a message that can only be translated as the right of parents to resent their children. If a child has no simple right to live before birth, will an infantile parent really feel it has a right not to be abused afterward? Not if life itself is so cheap as that. The man or woman who feels he or she has regrettably waived the right to abort is not necessarily likely to regard the small child as a sacred trust.

Pro-abortion rhetoric sends out a message that can only be translated as the right of parents to resent their children. If a child has no simple right to live before birth, will an infantile parent really feel it has a right not to be abused afterward? Not if life itself is so cheap as that.

The rhetoric of abortion is all about assuming responsibility. The reality of abortion is the evasion of responsibility. Spina bifida, poverty, hydrocephalus, and other afflictions have very little to do with it, pace Mike Wallace.

In the past society wasn't terribly shy about expecting parents to make sacrifices. In the event of an inconvenient birth of a deformed baby, there was sympathy and often active charity, but no suggestion that parental responsibility could be diminished. The parents were expected to draw, in emergencies, on resources of natural love. I daresay we realized that love was more than a mood: it was an act of will, too.

The English essayist Clive Bell once tried to define civilization, and he noted, after considering several models from ancient Greece to Enlightenment France, that no great civilization had ever placed comfort ahead of other important values. The sentimentalization of "unwanted children" is a form of the worship of comfort, sacrificing (under the pretext of reconciling) the right of the child to the comfort of the parent. The unrestricted availability of abortion can mean nothing else. In that respect, legal abortion-on-demand can only teach a very different lesson from what its advocates profess.

The rhetoric of abortion is all about assuming responsibility. The reality of abortion is the evasion of responsibility.

What is strange – at least at first sight – is that this callousness about the unborn child should occur in a society where we are forever hectored to show "compassion" for others. Even as enlightened voices sternly urge us to take responsibility for unseen strangers, they soothingly release us from responsibility to our own children. If these two positions seem inconsistent, they can be politically harmonized: we can discharge the duties of "compassion" through politics, while the state relieves us of our nearer duties. Since this form of "compassion" is brokered by the tax-collecting and wealth-distributing state, the reasonable inference is that what we are headed for is the totally politicized society, in which relations among citizens replace relations of kinship.

To put it simply, we are required to love, and provide for, our neighbor, and our neighbor's neighbor, and our neighbor's neighbor's neighbor; but not our sons and daughters. This has quite literally given a new meaning to the word "compassion," which now implies a strangely politicized form of love; a highly unnatural love, at the expense of more natural kinds. The duties of the taxpayer begin to look more absolute than those of the parent. If the parent chooses to go on welfare, not too many hard questions will be asked, since it is a state-enhancing choice.

In the past society wasn't terribly shy about expecting parents to make sacrifices. In the event of an inconvenient birth of a deformed baby, there was sympathy and often active charity, but no suggestion that parental responsibility could be diminished. The parents were expected to draw, in emergencies, on resources of natural love.

It is apparently too much to ask that parents bear the burden of their own children. Anti-abortion people often hear the charge that they are "pro-life when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to providing for those who are already born."

What does this really mean, to the extent that it isn't simply polemical invective? It means that if you oppose abortion, you must be willing to assume responsibility for the support of the child whose life you save. In consistency, if you prevent your neighbor from beating his son to death, you should be required to adopt the boy yourself.

But beyond that, it begs the whole question of parental duties. Reasonable people may differ on how much society should do in emergencies. But the argument we are now considering implies something more than that we have collective duties to the unfortunate: it implies that only supporters of unbridled redistribution have the right to oppose unbridled abortion. Unless you agree that the state should provide for all, you mustn't demand parental responsibility – though those who believe the former almost always deny the latter anyway. Heads they win, tails you lose.

Considering several models from ancient Greece to Enlightenment France … no great civilization had ever placed comfort ahead of other important values. The sentimentalization of "unwanted children" is a form of the worship of comfort.

Accidents do happen, and we can differ, as I say, about society's duties to the victims of accidents. But we should not differ about the rule that parents must care for their own children, born and unborn, and we must never make so many exceptions as to subvert the rule itself.

As the Mike Wallace example illustrates, we are obsessed with exceptions and hard cases and anomalies. In every area, from free speech to economics, we have formed the habit of sacrificing normal to abnormal, rule to exception, central to eccentric. But I repeat: at some point welfare subverts the work ethic, at some point abortion subverts the family (intrinsic morality apart). If only to protect its own good order (which is itself an aspect of social justice), society must at some point draw the line.

What is strange – at least at first sight – is that this callousness about the unborn child should occur in a society where we are forever hectored to show "compassion" for others. Even as enlightened voices sternly urge us to take responsibility for unseen strangers, they soothingly release us from responsibility to our own children.

We seem to have forgotten that the normal needs firm support just as much as the abnormal needs special concern. Justice is like capital; mercy is like the interest. Unless we establish a rigorous justice, capable of some nay-saying finality, we will never have the foundation for real mercy of the kind that heals; our humanitarianism will turn into mushy lenity. It was such a false humanitarianism that moved Chesterton to say of a contemporary that he was not only an early Christian, but the only early Christian who ought to have been eaten by the lions.

Our society's exceptionalism, as in subordinating law and order to exaggerated notions of civil liberties and social justice, has now led to a widespread revulsion against government itself. Normal citizens have begun to draw the line in their own way, as in tax revolts that simply cut off the flow of wealth to the state that has ceased to protect them as it has increased its demands on them.

To put it simply, we are required to love, and provide for, our neighbor, and our neighbor's neighbor, and our neighbor's neighbor's neighbor; but not our sons and daughters. This has quite literally given a new meaning to the word "compassion," which now implies a strangely politicized form of love; a highly unnatural love, at the expense of more natural kinds.

I think it is precisely the sense of outraged normality, in a different form, that lies behind the "single-issue" politics of abortion. True, this issue has drawn into politics hundreds of thousands of otherwise apolitical people. That may well be an unhealthy sign, but it isn't their fault. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, in their book The Civic Culture, wisely argue that the "failure" to vote may be a sign of health in a democracy, since it indicates that politics doesn't agitate people very much, and the non-voter feels he can trust the voter not to impose intolerable conditions on him.

Unfortunately, the anti-abortion movement may be a sign that the old trust in our political system has been seriously violated. Formerly acquiescent people are registering their feeling that those who have handled things so far have not handled them well, or even tolerably. It may be that their opponents are sincere in likening them to vigilantes. But even vigilantism is often a real response to a felt need.

To legalize a practice like abortion, however common it may be, is to tear up the social contract. It is to challenge deeply rooted feelings as to what human life and society are all about. To me, at any rate, it seems clear that there are now two warring views among us as to whether the state or the family should be the formative social principle in America.

If, tomorrow, the Supreme Court were to legalize infanticide, we would certainly see the same phenomenon on an even grander scale. Millions of people would suddenly feel – and say vocally – that their whole understanding of the kind of society we are had been shocked to the core. They would in many cases go on to a deeper understanding of what was wrong, and to a more comprehensive political position. But their first impulse would be to reverse this law – and for that their opponents would call them "single-issue fanatics." (No doubt adding something snide about the stridency of the phrase "killing babies.")

I hope the analogy makes my point: to legalize a practice like abortion, however common it may be, is to tear up the social contract. It is to challenge deeply rooted feelings as to what human life and society are all about. To me, at any rate, it seems clear that there are now two warring views among us as to whether the state or the family should be the formative social principle in America.

In keeping with its general deviousness, the pro-abortion side fears recognition that abortion is a crucial issue, one of those issues that define the very nature of a society.

The pro-abortion side can bear plenty of disagreement – but only as long as it contains its opposition by suppressing the radical implications of legal abortion, carefully focusing attention on "hard cases." In keeping with its general deviousness, the pro-abortion side fears recognition that abortion is a crucial issue, one of those issues that define the very nature of a society. And it condemns that recognition as obsessive – "single-issue politics" – to prevent the general public from realizing the stakes. For this reason, the proper rejoinder from the anti-abortion side is to insist that its own cause is a matter of "crucial-issue politics."

It is important to make provision for the widow and the orphan.

But it is even more important to make provision for the family. The old medical adage primum non nocere – above all, do no harm – is pertinent. If the family didn't exist, it would be no particular misfortune to be an orphan; but you can't help the orphan by abolishing the family.

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Copyright @ 2020 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. This article was published originally in the Winter 1982 edition of Human Life Review, and is one of the articles in the anthology of Sobran’s columns, Single Issues: Essays on the Crucial Social Questions

Single Issues

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Joe Sobran (1946-2010) was a syndicated columnist for 35 years, a CBS Spectrum commentator, an author, and sought-after lecturer. Considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists of the 20th century, Sobran is often compared to G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken.

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