Andy Schmookler: Here’s a challenge for pro-lifers

A two-part message I’d like to give to pro-life activists: 1) More than many liberals, I agree with you about the moral seriousness of abortion. But 2) I also believe that what you are doing with that issue in our nation’s politics is a big mistake that is damaging the nation.

And I bet that you will agree that I am right – if you will honestly follow my argument. That is my challenge to you.

First, where I agree with you.

I reject the too-easy argument (made by many liberals) that the abortion issue should be settled by the idea that “a woman has a right to control her own body.” She may well have such a right, but that argument skips over the central issue: when a woman is pregnant, something is there that is not “her own body.”

And the question on which the abortion issue hinges is: how should we regard that “something,” and what status should we give it?

Americans are divided on that question.

The answer that many in the pro-life movement give is that from the moment of conception, this “something” should be considered a “human being.” On that basis, they conclude that – because we regard a human life as sacred – the just-fertilized cell (and all its subsequent stages of development) is therefore entitled to all the human rights. Including, of course, the right to life.

Many on the other, pro-choice side believe that there’s an important difference, in terms of human status, between an ovum that has just been fertilized by a sperm cell and a newborn baby looking up at its mother’s face.

But – whether it warrants being called “a human life” in the early stages or not – it is nonetheless clearly something that, over time, is becoming increasingly human, and it is something that will become a human being if it is allowed to survive.

Surely, it seems clear to me, some moral weight must be given to that.

But Americans who agree that “human life” is sacred nonetheless make different judgments on how much weight should be given. They differ on how “human” a fertilized egg and then a fetus are. And they differ on how much weight should be given other values at stake in an unwanted pregnancy.

Unfortunately, these differences have damaged America’s politics in two ways: 1) one concerns how pro-life people feel about the people who judge these things differently from them; and 2) the other concerns how they deal politically with that difference in judgment.

A lot of pro-lifers, I have learned over the years, regard pro-choice people with moral disgust. And they assume that only immoral people would be pro-choice. The oft-heard statement that “one cannot be a Christian and a Democrat” – which translates as “no good person can be a Democrat because the Democrats are pro-choice” – captures this view.

It injures our politics for one large group of Americans to regard another large group of Americans as bad people. But more than that unfortunate cost, that assessment is demonstrably false.

My evidence comes from my fairly wide range of liberal friends, most all of whom are on the pro-choice side of the issue. Take it from me: in their lives, they are just as decent, caring, kind, responsible, and admirable as the good conservative and pro-life people I know. Likewise, their families – the goodness of their marriages, how well raised their children are and how well they turn out – are as excellent an embodiment of good family values as can be found on the other side of the abortion issue.

These pro-choice people would be just as adamant about protecting an infant from harm as people on the pro-life side. And evidently, the fact that they make a different judgment on the status of what they regard as not-yet-human is not indicative of whether or not they are, in general, good people.

So I would like to ask pro-life activists to consider: if good people can come to different judgments about abortion, doesn’t that imply something important about how we should regard each other, and that disagreement?

Does it not imply the need for some greater degree of mutual respect than “moral disgust”? And would such a change of attitude not make for a much healthier political environment than our unending battles over abortion have created? It is hard to work constructively with people you think are moral scum.

In the next installment, I will show why this is precisely the kind of issue that our founders sought – with the Constitution – to prevent from becoming political battlegrounds.

Andy Schmookler’s new book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – and How We Can Defeat It.”