Abortion and American Federalism

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Devon, PA.  Joe Carter, over at the First Things web page, offers a reflection on Ron Paul’s pro-life credentials and how they square — or rather, in Carter’s opinion, how they do not — with his libertarian and federalism principles.  I have much to say on this little essay, but no time in which to say it, and so I simply recommend it to the reader with the following suggestion.  What Carter is rightly grappling with is how two ostensibly competing strains within American conservatism can be rendered coherent: the Aristotelian understanding of politics as ordered to the Good, and the modern decentralist understanding (pick your exemplary figure, from Burke to Jefferson, and beyond) of politics as chiefly arrangement and distribution of powers with a principled disposition in favor of the limited and the local.  FPR‘s Peter Haworth has offered by anticipation what might serve as an incomplete riposte to Carter’s argument (here).  Carter writes,

The young obstetrics and gynecology resident watched as the two-pound fetus was placed in a bucket, crying and struggling to breathe. Although the other medical personnel who participated in the illegal abortion pretended not to notice, the medical student recognized they were overstepping the bounds of morality by picking and choosing who should live and who should die.

“Soon the crying stopped,” says physician and Congressman Ron Paul in his forthcoming book, Liberty Defined. “This harrowing event forced me to think more seriously about this important issue.”

Paul has thought seriously about the issue. Over the past four decades he has become one of the most prominent pro-life voices within libertarianism. But his consistency on the issue of the sanctity of life is trumped by his allegiance to federalism. Although Paul admits that the federal government has a responsibility to protect human life, he inexplicably does not believe the federal government should be involved in protecting human fetal life. He is also surprised to find that few pro-life advocates share his view that only state governments have the responsibility to protect these innocents:

Strangely, given that my moral views are akin to theirs, various national pro-life groups have been hostile to my position on this issue. But I also believe in the Constitution, and therefore, I consider it a state-level responsibility to restrain violence against any human being.

I disagree with the nationalization of the issue and reject the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in all fifty states. Legislation that I have proposed would limit federal court jurisdiction of abortion. Legislation of this sort would probably allow state prohibition of abortion on demand as well as in all trimesters. It will not stop all abortions. Only a truly moral society can do that.

Paul is right to say that legislation alone will not end the tragedy of abortion. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the judiciary, the issue will shift to fifty state legislatures, requiring a long-term, incrementalist approach to protecting the unborn. If this were all he meant—if Paul were merely making a pragmatic suggestion that the issue is best resolved at the state level—his position would be unobjectionable.

But as he tends to do on Constitutional issues, Paul puts his preference for procedure ahead of principle. If any level of government fails to do its duty in defending and protecting the lives of its innocent citizens, it is the obligation of the other branches to compensate for the failure in governance. Paul disagrees, preferring, when the two conflict, to defend federalism rather than the lives of the unborn.

Read the rest here . . .

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