Abortion and American Federalism

by James Matthew Wilson on May 4, 2011 · 7 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

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 . . .

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Barry A. McCain May 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Mustn’t we first ask ourselves, “Where am I a ‘citizen’ first?”? That is, to which branch polity ought I give my foremost loyalty? (Note: The etymology for both “citizen” and “polity” can be traced to words meaning “city”, but that’s a discussion for another day.) If one believes that the states do–or at least SHOULD–have a great deal of independent sovreignty from the federal government, it almost seems moot to argue that one should interfere with the affairs of a neighboring state.

It gets beyond the scope of the essay, but I see two very “American” ideas in play here: that one believes his system of government IS best (or should always approach it), and that one has a duty to spread the wisdom and benefits of said government to those not so fortunate to fall under its purview–if not to bring them under it directly.

To come back to the subject at hand: What is it that makes us WHO we are (language, race, faith, region, ideology, other), and what are the limits of that identity? The entire concept of “America” is one of constructed identity: once we were Englishmen fleeing England, then the “tired and poor, yearning to be free”, now a “city on a hill”. All the while, our commonality has been tied to a set of ideas, written down, amended and interpreted over the ages. But is that “best”? (What an American thing to ask!) Is there possibly something MORE unique about individuals and their “‘tribes” that would make for a “better” form a government?

As a resident of Dallas, what say do I have in the affairs of denizens of Houston or Chicago, or, for that matter, Berlin or Baghdad? Sure, I think abortion should be illegal in all of them. And, as a Christian, I feel obliged to work to that end. But what are the limits of politics? Ought I believe they should also ascribe to a state church, too? (Perhaps, but that’s a different kind of “empire”.)

There’s a great quotation in “A Man for All Seasons”; Thomas More says (referring to England), “This country’s planted thick with laws — Man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.” I take that to heart. We’ve put up boundaries and limits and laws to protect ourselves. Sometimes it’s necessary to tear those down, but we must be very careful when we do so.

avatar John Gorentz May 4, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Protection of the unborn is not just something that government does (or doesn’t do) while citizens stand idly by. Not everything that needs protecting is best protected by legal prohibitions.

avatar D.W. Sabin May 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm

When murder is a right, rights cease to exist.

avatar Joe Carter May 4, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Mr. Wilson,

Thanks for pointing out Mr. Hayworth’s essay, I had not read that before. I have to say, though, that I think he offers a more strict dichotomy than is necessary. I believe that we should champion a robust federalism when it prevents, as he says, a “centralized unitary regime.” But that does not mean that we should champion federalism when it conflicts with subsidiarity. I don’t think we are quite to the point where we are forced to choose the lesser of two tyrants. We still have time to save the mediating institutions from the grip of the state.

Mr. Sabin,

That’s a brilliantly succinct summary of the point I was hoping to make in my article. It’s not that I’m against federalism (I’m all for it in its rightful place), but justice and right order trump all systems.

Conservative defenders of federalism should be the first to say that since no branch of government has the right to sanction the killing of the innocent, there can be no real debate over which level of government should have such authority.

avatar Barry A. McCain May 5, 2011 at 8:47 am

“When murder is a right, rights cease to exist.”

I completely agree. For those of us who believe abortion IS murder, that’s a very pithy way to argue for the repeal of Roe v. Wade (or whatever subsequent rulings “strengthened” it). However, to the best of my knowledge, murder is not a federal offense–except in cases when a federal employee is killed. Rather, it’s a felony in every state individually.

One might very reasonably argue that “leaving the matter up the to states” would result in a “patchwork” of distinct, if not contradictory, laws. But, then is it the role of the federal government to “unite” the states under a uniform code, given the offense itself? The parallels to the slavery issue in the 19th century are quite acute. Did Lincoln’s/the Union’s/the North’s “interpretation” of the Constitution justify their actions, given the gravity of the situation? Or: was it a breach of power and a trampling on the rights of the Southerners?

Once again we’re faced with the issue “What is a state?” and the proper degree of one’s automony ceded to the federal government. It’s a legal issue that overlaps a moral one. Maybe we do need to “alter or abolish” the way the country is constructed, but I would be more comfortable doing so if the debate were presented in those terms.

avatar Zac May 5, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I should have known. Society must rely on government to coerce people into acting morally. Here I thought that’s what the Bible was for. Or at least, what the threat of hell was for. I’ve been going about this all wrong! If only the government would have forced me to behave myself sooner (like God does?), I wouldn’t have made so many evil decisions so far.

Doing right in your own life is all fine and good- but I want to do right for someone on the other side of the continent as well- with or without his permission. If only there were a way to create an enormous, centralized, universal, unimpeachable, world-wide government that would enforce my specific diety-approved values for all the world’s population. Why didn’t I think of this before?! Forget personal responsibility and community autonomy! We know we’re right. What the world needs is a more centralized and powerful world dictatorship to keep people doing the right thing. Kind of like a monarchy, but with someone trustworthy at the helm.

If you’re like me and would rather be living in a theocracy, now’s as good a time as any for you to spread the good word and remind our fellow brethren of what is true and right, and point out the page in the Bible where it explicitly states the moment in time at which a soul comes into being, or where it defines the term ‘innocent blood’ to include unborn children but not non-human life, or, for that matter, the part where Jesus said: “Those who seek His Kingdom, look not to God, or to Caesar, but petition your legislator, that the world might be a better place through his wisdom and works.”

avatar Sean Scallon May 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Abortion has done more to skew our nation’s politics than any other issue since 1973. And Republicans like it just the way it is, which is why Roe has never been repealed nor probably will be.

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