Yuval Levin on President Obama’s Notre Dame Speech: Pro-lifers, take heart (a little)

Yuval Levin believes that he spies some rhetorical signs that the pro-abortion rights side can’t defend itself with traditional American language.  When pro-choice advocates talk about freedom and equality, they undermine themselves as they unintentionally point to the way that the pro-choice position denies freedom and equality to unborn child.  Here’s one example:

Here is what Obama said about the difficulty of finding common ground:

“And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice.”

Here again, in the case against ego, against letting the strong dominate the weak, against letting self-interest govern all our affairs, is the language and logic of the pro-life movement. It is of course also the language and logic of the larger cause of human rights in America, but that’s precisely the point: In the case of abortion, that tradition and that logic point decisively away from the Roe regime. The kind of arguments we used to hear in favor of abortion rights even into the mid-1990s involved precisely the language of cruel, crass, egoistic self-interest.

It has struck me as well that when defenders of abortion rights talk about the moral tragedy of abortion and the necessity of reducing abortion rather than outright defending the right to have an abortion, it compromises their position.  As John Piper (I believe) and others have pointed out, reducing abortions is only a necessary goal if abortion is wrong.

When I read Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., I remember being irritated by his criticism of pro-life activists who claimed the mantle of MLK, Jr. and the civil rights movement.  He argued that the civil rights movement sought to increase constitutional rights for people, while the anti-abortion movement sought to take constitutional rights away.  Of course, to believe that, you have to believe that abortion is a constitutional right.  It also makes the false (at least in my understanding) assertion that pro-lifers care more about limiting women’s rights than saving the unborn.  I have to say that I have never met, heard, or read a pro-life person that had any interest in controlling women’s bodies.

Levin’s article helped me to see that there’s another level on which Dyson’s argument doesn’t work.  As Levin says, when people defend abortion rights based on American ideals, they in effect argue against themselves.  If we want to talk about taking away rights, the right to life is one of the basic three rights (life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness) that government is supposed to protect.  I realize that it’s from the Declaration of Independence, which is not the law, but protecting these freedoms is what American political theory has always said that government should do.  It strikes me as a much firmer foundation than the “constitutional right” to abortion, drawn from the right to privacy that was itself a synthesis of other rights actually enumerated in the Constitution.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor


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