Tuesday, October 25, 2011

David Frum's confusion over the legal question of abortion

David Frum, author, commentator and former aide to Pres. George W. Bushwrites:
But the political debate over abortion is not a debate over morality. It is a debate over legality.

Today's pro-life movement goes beyond arguing that abortion is immoral to argue that abortion should be punishable. Morality and punishability are two very different categories. ...

It is the demand that abortion be punished that divides America so passionately.
Of course, it is true that what is rightly kept legal is not necessarily ethical, and that what is rightly prohibited is not necessarily unethical. But it is also obvious that the legal question of abortion is hugely dependent on the ethics of abortion. If abortion is a morally trivial act, then it is difficult to see why government should interfere (beyond regulations for the health of women, etc.). But if abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being -- like, say, the intentional drowning of a toddler in the bath tub -- then abortion is precisely the sort of practice that almost everyone agrees should not be permitted by law. Indeed, prohibiting abortion would be necessary to fulfill perhaps the most foundational and uncontroversial purpose of government: protecting innocent people from unjustified homicide.

So Frum is wrong: It is not really the legal question of abortion that "divides America so passionately," but the ethical question. For if an ethical consensus was truly reached, a legal consensus would follow naturally.

Frum thinks the pro-life movement should stop trying to prohibit abortion, and instead focus on reducing the number of abortions without the force of law. Of course, we will continue working to reduce abortions using education, persuasion and compassionate assistance. But Frum does not seem to understand that the pro-life position, properly understood, is necessarily political, just as the movements to end slavery, bring about women's suffrage, and ensure civil rights for black Americans were necessarily political. Basic justice requires that human beings not be treated as property; that women, who are equal in fundamental human dignity to men, be equal participants in democracy; and that people not be discriminated against on the basis of skin color. It is not enough to try to use persuasion to reduce the incidence of some people enslaving other people under a legal regime that permits slavery; even if slavery did not in practice exist, such a legal regime would be gravely unjust, for it says that human beings may be treated as property for the benefit of others.

So it is with abortion. The truth of the pro-life position entails that we work to restore legal protection for innocent human beings at all developmental stages, including the unborn. It is a matter of justice.