PRO-LIFE v. PRO-CHOICE: A CONSERVATIVE JUSTIFICATION FOR A THIRD OPTION
When the issue of Abortion arises, there are essentially two camps – Pro-Choice and Pro-Life. Contemporary politics, or at least common uses of the labels, would lead you to believe the following about the two groups. The first believes in a woman’s right to have dominion over her own body and hence, believes she has the “choice” to determine if she will carry a pregnancy to term. The latter believes that life begins at conception, and that any subsequent taking of that life is the moral and/or legal equivalent to murder. The second camp is the home of the group of individuals that label themselves as “conservatives.” I too consider myself to be a member of this illustrious group and will humbly attempt to discuss our “position” as well as my problems with said position. We believe in principled governance and we expect our elected officials to share in this belief. A noble endeavor no doubt, but it is curious to this conservative how simply pledging allegiance to this Pro-Life camp without further explanation or justification, and ignoring every other piece of evidence that would infer principled governance, gives one the “conservative” credentials that a principled electorate so passionately longs for. Why do we as conservatives time and time again continue to deny admission to our illustrious group any individual who even hints at the idea of opening a dialog with the other camp? Is our goal to find like-minded individuals, or is our goal to save the lives of innocent children? Given that “preservation of life” implies nothing about increasing our “membership,” I would be inclined to assume it was the latter, but that doesn’t always appear to be the case.
My own thoughts and frustrations with this “vetting process” have led me down many roads in search of answers – many of them admittedly taking me to the limits of both liberalism and libertarianism in pursuit of clarity on the matter. I find it hard to believe that one can truly be committed to the goal of protecting innocent life if he cannot allow himself, even for a moment, to attempt to understand the rationale of the other side. After much deliberation and personal reflection regarding the issue, I have come to the conclusion that we simply need more “camps.”
My exploration of the Pro-Choice camp has led me to the belief that while we as “conservatives” need to be mindful of their rationale, it is of little importance to our position on this issue. Their position on Abortion is derivative of an entirely different paradigm as the focus is on the mother’s rights rather than any determination of said rights being afforded to the unborn. I do not dismiss that position on merit or even as a matter of politics, I simply believe that once this examination has been undertaken, it is more important for us to focus on solidifying our own position rather than deliberating over how to discredit the opposing argument. For we too are not without flaws. In fact, I think we have many.
So focusing on the Pro-Life camp, I am led by many of my “conservative” peers to believe that this is a moral choice; it is the religious choice; and accordingly, it is the only choice. As a Christian myself, I appreciate this position but I am deeply confused by the fact that many of my “conservative” brethren forget that Christianity is a personal choice as well. It is not compulsory for this or any American to affiliate with any religious institution or agree with any religious belief – Christian or otherwise. Our 1st Amendment guarantees that we have the Right to practice religion in any manner we see fit – or to not practice at all. As “conservatives” this right forms the justification for nearly every argument that we make in the public forum and the political arena. With that in mind, I am deeply troubled when, on issues such as this, we abandon that 1st Amendment high ground; and rely upon as the foundation of our Abortion position that- this is a moral choice; it is the religious choice; and accordingly it is the only choice – and fail to see how said justification flies counter to the spirit and the letter of the 1st Amendment.
As I stated earlier, I am a Christian and I do believe that one’s faith has a role in the political process. I think it is our Right as Americans to vote for candidates in a manner that reflect our values. That being said, I believe that far too often, those on the political Right confuse the difference between conservatism as a philosophy or ideology with what many consider being “conservative” in one’s daily life. The latter typically implies an emphasis on things like family values or a religious upbringing. While I certainly believe that those things are virtuous, I do not believe that they encapsulate what conservative ideology is truly all about. I see it more as a process toward decision making, or in a political context – a process that leads to policy formulation or choosing positions on issues. The everyday role of “conservatism” is no less important, it is simply individual in nature – as I believe the spirit and the letter of the 1st Amendment intended for it to be.
I believe that this distinction is where many “conservatives” get thrown off course on this or any issue. They read political websites and hear speeches given by candidates that show a laundry list of “issues” that they support, and they say things like “we believe in family values, a strong national defense, the preservation of life, the sanctity of marriage, and the Right to Bear Arms.” Then proudly written somewhere on the page or read loudly in the speech is the word “CONSERVATIVE” and they believe they have finally found their man. Now I would like to believe that these politicians understand that they have just fused the ideology and the principle together in the same message, but I do believe that many “conservatives” no longer understand the difference between the two. It is this problem that I would like to address and will try to do so by using the subject of Abortion.
THREE POINTS BEFORE WE MOVE ON
Before reading on I would like to make three quick points. The first being. We send our elected officials to Washington to represent us based for the most part on the major “conservative” talking points: Abortion, Same Sex Marriage, Preservation of the 2nd Amendment, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, and States’ Rights. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it pretty much hits the high points. While each of these talking points obviously plays at least an ancillary role in many other debates, how many days does either House of Congress spend dealing expressly with these key issues? If you’re answer was less than 365, maybe you should be more concerned about your politicians deliberative process than you are with the talking points he / she can recite on the campaign trail.
The second point I would like to make before we begin is this. We as conservatives often associate our own views with many of the previously stated positions or “talking points,” so it is only natural that we would expect our representatives to do the same. My question to each of you would be this. What do we really know about said candidate if all we know is that they are smart enough to agree with a list – that they know they cannot oppose and still get elected? I would say nothing. I believe our focus should be on their approach to conservatism rather than the end result. It is the approach that will guide them through the legislative process each of the days that they sit waiting patiently for Abortion and Gun Control to emerge on the docket.
The third point is related to the issue of Abortion. Many conservatives argue that if one is not “Pro-Life” then they are in fact “Pro-Abortion.” I will attempt to mask my disdain for this label by simply stating that I believe such a conclusion is misguided and only serves to discredit the true justifications of the “conservative” position. Put simply, if conventional thought regarding the “Pro-Life” position is that Life begins at conception, does it really make someone a proponent of Abortion if they simply believe life begins further along in the process? Are they suddenly marching in protests with signs championing abortion services just because their view of life begins at a later stage? I would simply point out that I believe that such an individual could absolutely dismiss the “Pro-Choice” argument and think abortion is an abomination on the most unforgivable of levels, yet still disagree with the moment that life begins.
As a conservative, I believe in strict interpretation of the Constitution. I believe that Principle is my guide in this endeavor. It gives me the conviction to do so in the fashion intended by our Founding Fathers. I also believe that said Principle – being absolutely individualized in nature and not subject to compulsion by this or any government – gives me the strength to defend my actions because they are based upon the religious, moral, and social standards that I have chosen for myself. With that in mind, I do not assume, imply, or even infer that any other “conservative” or any other American for that matter shares a similar set of principles to my own, and I recognize their freedom to be guided by whatever source they deem worthy.
Putting this philosophy into action on the issue of Abortion leads me first to the Founding documents. The Declaration of Independence told us that we were “endowed by our Creator” with the Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – that was kind of an important document in the history of the United States and the world for that matter so I hold it in pretty high regard. More importantly it laid the foundation for the drafting of our Constitution. From that document comes the idea that there is a ”right to life” – so that is where we will begin.
The problem arises when determining where life begins. Courts have deliberated, people have argued, and scientists have debated this point endlessly and without conclusion, so we’re going to bypass these conflicts and focus on the problems specifically related to the “conservative” position. Until the Supreme Court is made up entirely of Justices that possess both medical and law degrees, I am going to assume that they are just as biased and ill-informed as the other side – and as we are for that matter.
So where does life begin? As a conservative, I believe we start with strict interpretation. Not that this is groundbreaking to anyone, but there is no mention of Abortion to be found in our Founding Documents. If this were a normal case for Strict Interpretation we would then move on to ancillary debates, contemporary writings, speeches from the Founders, etc…. and at a later date we can fight over which of those takes precedence. On this issue, there’s really not much if anything out there, so the work is quickly done. If there was a smoking gun, don’t you think we as conservatives would be using it by now?
So that leads us to that second point – our individualized set of principles that guide our decision making process. We will ignore social and non-religious moral factors that may contribute to one’s core principles, and focus purely on religion for the interest of time. Lets say our Faith tells us we believe life begins at conception – we won’t murky the waters with how birth control confuses that debate either – we will simply say when sperm meets the egg. Real scientific – I know. Thus, any termination of that life would thus be “murder” under that standard.
No rocket science here – I know. Contemporary political debates would lead one to believe that this is the position of any and all conservatives. My question… is this really the case? And… is this really the most consistent and “conservative” position in the first place? I will pose a few scenarios here that might flesh out my point and illustrate my argument that it is really religion and not conservatism that is driving our stated position on this issue.
What if a conservative came along? Lets just call him Thomas Jefferson. He was a champion of individualized Principle protected by the 1st Amendment, so we will use his name here. Jefferson dismisses the Pro-Choice argument and believes abortion is murder. What if Thomas Jefferson, relying upon his own 1st Amendment protected list of principles, which were only loosely “religious” in nature, believed that life began at birth? His religion, or more accurately, his guiding principles led him to believe life begins when a baby is born. This would certainly disqualify him from the Pro-Life camp in the 21st Century, but would it make him any less “conservative?” Perhaps more importantly, would it make him Pro-Choice or dare I say Pro-Abortion? Maybe it makes him something else.
Lets throw another scenario in here too. In this one, we will call our conservative Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan dismisses the Pro-Choice argument and believes abortion is murder. What if Ronald believed that life began when a fetus reached viability – when it could live on its own outside the womb? His position is admittedly more difficult to get our hands around because viability is a subjective standard when it is viewed in a speculative context, and it will continue to change throughout the course of time with improvements to medicine and technology. With that in mind, how would we view Ronald Reagan if his set of principles led him to believe that life began when a fetus could live outside the mother? Would he be any less “conservative,” and would we label him with the Scarlet Letter of the Pro-Choice camp? Would we allow him to characterize his position as Pro-Life if he believed that life began somewhere after We say it does?
The unfortunate reality facing both Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan is that they would undoubtedly be dumped in with the Pro-Choice camp. Even having dismissed that train of though from the outset, we still find ourselves labeling two individuals as part of a group that follows a completely different thought process and was never even part of their deliberation.
So where does this leave us? On the most personal of levels, I would argue it doesn’t change a thing. From a practical standpoint, it leaves us in a rather precarious position if we are Jefferson or Reagan. They must either subscribe to the “conservative” position or face certain banishment from that camp even though their respective positions are based on their own individualized set of principles – just as ours were only coming to a different determination.
A NEW APPROACH FOR CONSERVATIVES
This dilemma has led me to the conclusion that the “conservative” community must consider an alternative approach to this issue. The current position alienates genuine conservatives who only disagree based on their own social, moral, and religious principles. Excluding them or characterizing them as “less conservative” because of this and this alone is the height of hypocrisy. How can we as the last line of defense for our Founding documents and the greatest champions of the 1st Amendment turn a blind eye to its letter and spirit on a fundamental issue such as this, and walk away believing that we have an ounce of credibility to call upon it in any other?
The truth is… we cannot. So what do I propose? I would humbly submit that we as conservatives cast this debate in an entirely new light. Either we must abandon the old label of “Pro-Life” and look for something more reflective of its true meaning, or we must open our doors and bring in the Jeffersons and the Reagans of the world who also share in our belief that all Life is worth saving. The Pro-Choice camp can keep its label. It is of no matter to us.
Practically speaking, such a position may even begin to bring a few of the Pro-Choice’rs over to our side. They are not ALL the “Pro-Abortion” sinners that so many “conservatives” try to characterize them as. Many of them simply struggle in the same way that many conservatives do. They are frustrated with the role that organized religion plays in framing the debate without admitting its presence.
I have no doubt that some of you reading this will immediately question my “conservative” credentials. You will be quick to label me many things – the last being “conservative” and I am fine with that. I would only ask each of you to ask yourself this one question. Is being conservative about the process of decision making – in the political sense or in the practice of our day-to-day lives – or is it about a laundry list of talking points that “conservatives” are supposed to remain loyal to?
At the end of the day, I am Pro-Life – even by the “conventional standard” that I have just spent this time calling into question. That being said, I will proudly accept any label my “conservative” brethren would bestow upon me if doing so helps in any way to shape this debate in a more reflective light. I genuinely believe that the conventional “conservative” position is anything but conservative as it is expressed in contemporary politics. I believe it is merely an expression of personal beliefs masked in the legitimacy of “conservatism.” I believe this endeavor discredits true conservatism with every word that is uttered in its name. I believe that real progress will not be made on this issue until ALL conservatives can admit that their position is rooted in religious, social, and moral beliefs rather than an ideology which would never intend to make any of those compulsory. Conservatism is about principled governance, but it is not about choosing those principles for American citizens, and being Pro-Life is about saving the lives of the innocent – not about telling our fellow citizens where that Life begins.