Amidst all of the press concerning the proposed abortion bill in Virginia, there were two matters that grabbed my attention, each saying something important about our country. The first was the call by many prominent Democrats for Governor Ralph Northam’s resignation after a 35-year-old yearbook photograph of him in blackface became public. Yet not one of these Democrats, to my knowledge, has called for his resignation for supporting infanticide just last week. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the Democratic Party’s almost lock-step commitment to legal abortion. But the party’s silence is telling, and is particularly stark in light of comments by Republican Senator Ben Sasse who, while condemning the racist photo, also declared that Northam “should get the hell out of office” for having endorsed a bill permitting infanticide. Sasse went on to challenge the entire Senate in exactly the same way.
The second thing I noticed—to my mind more subtle—was a comment made by Kathy Tran, the Virginia delegate who had put forth the extreme bill Northam was championing. When asked on the Virginia House floor if the bill would permit abortion during a woman’s labor, Tran answered: “My bill would allow that, yes.” The next day, however, Tran sought to retract the statement: “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.’”
Tran’s retraction was as grotesque as the comment she retracted. What she didn’t say was, “Of course not! That would be infanticide!” Rather, she gave a cleanly legal answer, citing Virginia law. Leaving aside the obvious duplicity of having introduced a bill that would allow a child to be killed during the process of birth in a state that forbids infanticide, Tran’s comment—“infanticide is not allowed in Virginia”—is a window into how we discuss moral issues in our time. For Tran, the issue was simply one of legality. She gave a legal response, not a moral one. And certainly not a human one.
We are in darkening times when our moral conscience is increasingly determined by what is legal. Alas, law doesn’t work that way. Laws are necessary, but they can never be the foundation upon which a society is built. For instance, the law requires us to stop at red lights. We have that law because we value life, and need to order traffic so that people aren’t hurt or killed. This commitment to life is the spirit of the law that stands behind the letter of the law. But the letter of the law is not sufficient. My father is a retired surgeon, who was often called into the emergency room in the middle of the night. Driving to the hospital at 3 a.m., there were times when he would come to a red light and, seeing no other cars, would drive through it. Why? Precisely for the same reason that we have stoplights—to protect life. Waiting on an empty road at 3 a.m. while a man with a head injury lies waiting for a doctor honors the letter of the law, but violates the spirit. It is indeed possible to break the letter of the law while honoring the spirit—ambulances do it all the time.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who exposed many of the evils of the Soviet regime, expressed this very concern in his now-famous 1978 Harvard commencement address. In words addressed explicitly to America, Solzhenitsyn spoke of what he saw as our growing habit of addressing moral questions through the law. His words (translated from Russian) are worth citing at length.
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.
Solzhenitsyn perfectly described how Tran formulated her retraction: by leaning on the letter of the law, with no thought as to whether the matter at hand was morally right. A society that depends on laws, he went on to warn, is in danger of losing its moral conscience:
I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
Solzhenitsyn’s words are even more applicable today than when he spoke 40 years ago. As debate over the—at least for now tabled—Virginia abortion law has made plain, we are becoming an increasingly legalized society. And therefore a less human one.