At about the middle of September I wrote a piece on this site critical of an article in Commonweal magazine by Peter Steinfels, a writer and former editor of the magazine (http://humanlifereview.com/index.php/component/content/article/4-blog/261-a-bad-bargain). Steinfels’s article was quite lengthy, with many asides about the Catholic Church, the pro-life movement, and the Republican Party, but its central thesis, at least as I understood it, was that the Church and the pro-life movement have been taking a flawed approach to the abortion controversy by insisting that human life must be protected from the moment of conception (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/beyond-stalemate). Much better, he argued, to acknowledge that human life develops in a nine-month continuum. In his view, in public discussion (whatever we say in the privacy of our homes) we should avoid drawing any line in the sand on when it actually begins. That will make it more likely that we can find consensus in a diverse, pluralist society. He was once willing to stipulate that life begins at eight weeks of pregnancy, but today he would be willing to move it up or down, presumably depending on where consensus can be found.
I called this approach “a bad bargain” for a number of reasons: first, because it ignores the dramatic starting-point of pregnancy, the uniting of sperm and egg to form new human life, second, because it sets us on a slippery slope that can be used to justify abortion at any point, and, third, because the “consensus” it seeks with liberals (conservatives generally are content with “moment of conception”) will never be achieved because liberals will never agree to supporting any limits on abortion but will probably use Steinfels’s concession to congratulate themselves on being right all along.
Shortly after my article appeared, Steinfels e-mailed Anne Conlon, managing editor of the Human Life Review, and asked if he could reply. She readily agreed.
Over the ensuing month and a half, despite two unanswered e-mails from Anne, the Review heard nothing from Peter Steinfels. Her third e-mail finally produced a response: He has been busy with other things but will soon be sending it.
In the meantime, the current editor of Commonweal, Paul Baumann, has weighed into the debate on the magazine’s website (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/steinfels-mckenna-commonweal).
Baumann professes great surprise that I should criticize Steinfels since I had written an article in the Atlantic in 1995 that, in his view, recommended a rather similar strategy for dealing with the abortion question. In my Human Life Review piece I myself confessed that on a first hasty reading of Steinfels’s essay I saw some similarities to my Atlantic article. It was only when I re-read it that I saw how radically different it was.
My 1995 article, entitled “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/09/on-abortion-a-lincolnian-position/309050/), was based on my reading of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Lincoln’s position in those debates was premised on a proposition he had been arguing since Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas sought to resolve the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the new territories by the principle of “popular sovereignty”: It was the right of the people in each of the territories to decide on whether or not they wanted slavery. But what about the rights of the slaves? Slavery, Douglas said, was one of those issues that can be argued, perhaps forever, by moralists and theologians, but it was not a question relevant to American politics or to the American Constitution. In one of his seven debates with Lincoln, Douglas said, “I am now speaking of rights under the Constitution, and not of moral or religious rights. I do not discuss the morals of the people of Missouri, but let them settle that matter for themselves. . . . It is for them to decide therefore the moral and religious right of the slavery question for themselves within their own limits.”
In my Atlantic article I remarked on how sophisticated and “modern” Douglas’s position sounded. It still seems that way to me. On the morality of slavery, Douglas was a thoroughgoing relativist: Some people like to keep slaves, some people don’t—and who are we to judge between them? The issue of the rightness or wrongness of slavery belongs in the realm of theology, to be debated forever by men wiser than he. If Douglas were alive today he might say, “answering that question is above my pay grade.”
In contrast to Douglas’s relativism, Lincoln was a moral absolutist. The evil of enslaving human beings was central to his position, such that he thought it lay behind the great division in the nation. “The real issue in this controversy . . . is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong.”
Lincoln combined his moral absolutism with tactical pragmatism. Unlike the abolitionists he did not think slavery could be immediately abolished. What he intended to do was to keep it confined to the existing Southern states, preventing it from spreading into the new territories. Slavery was a “wen,” a cancer, and the first concern of the physician is to keep the cancer from metastasizing. Thus hemmed in, confined to the Old South with the rest of the nation on a course of rapid expansion into free states, the cancer would eventually dry up for want of sustenance. (Whether or not the tactic would have succeeded we will never know, because, ironically, slavery was abruptly abolished in 1865, the result of a war costing 526,000 lives—but that was on no one’s horizon in 1858.) Even after his election as President in 1860, Lincoln was prepared to go to nearly any length to avoid a split with the South. But the one thing he refused to do was to let slavery extend into the territories. On this he was an absolutist.
In my Atlantic article I tried to set out an analogous position on abortion. Unlike some others on the pro-life side, I believed it futile to aim at a constitutional amendment or other means of bringing about an immediate end to abortion. What I thought the most practical course was to limit and regulate it by every means then available, from requiring waiting periods and ultrasounds to banning travels outside the state for abortions. Those are still my views today. But I would never give up the principle that the union of sperm and egg produces a human being whose life at all stages of pregnancy is entitled to our protection. I believe, also, that we should speak out boldly about our ultimate goal even as we chip away at the abortion regime.
The heart of my complaint about Steinfels’s proposition was that instead of taking a Lincolnian approach, holding fast to a vital pro-life principle, it would sacrifice that principle to the imaginary goal of consensus on abortion with pro-abortion liberals. Baumann himself inadvertently makes my point in the penultimate sentence of his article: “McKenna ends his criticism of Peter’s article in a very un-Lincolnian way by calling for a renewed commitment to ‘moral absolutism.’” He’s got me right, but I don’t think he understands Lincoln very well. Lincoln was a moral absolutist, not a relativist.