The Zealot Zone

Mr. Thoreau goes to Wichita.

The most disturbing fact about last summer’s protests in Wichita was not that hundreds of Operation Rescue activists tried to block the entrances of three abortion clinics for nearly two months, or that in doing so they gained nationwide publicity for their cause. More than anything else, critics of the group were troubled by the fact that the protesters deliberately broke the law, showed no remorse for this, and intended to do it again and again.

“We have anarchy,” a spokeswoman for one of the clinics told The New York Times. “It is clear that these people will stop at nothing to impose their views on others,” complained Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. “These are scary people. ... This is bleary-eyed zealotry.”

What scares Michelman and other abortion-rights activists is not the number, the political strength, or the publicity skills of Operation Rescue’s members. It’s their moral certitude. Unlike George Bush, who supports a constitutional amendment to ban abortion but cautions activists to “stay within the law,” the militants of Operation Rescue want to do something now to stop what they consider the murder of innocent human beings.

One need not share that premise to recognize that, once accepted, it logically leads (at the very least) to the sort of intervention practiced by the protesters in Wichita. Yet most abortion-rights advocates ignore the connection, for fear of lending legitimacy to the other side. Thus they use misleading arguments when they try to deny parallels between the antiabortion movement and the efforts of abolitionists or civil-rights activists.

In a September 4 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, for example, former NOW official Jacquelyn Washington condemns attempts by “the outrageous hoodlums of Operation Rescue” to draw on the moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. “The right to choose an abortion is legal in Wichita,” she writes. “Those women who are going into the clinic are doing something that has been determined as their right to do. Such a decision should be respected, even by those who disagree with the law.”

The obvious question is, Why? Antiabortion activists would be quick to point out that, prior to passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, the right to own a slave was also legal. And prior to Brown v. Board of Education, “separate but equal” was a perfectly respectable legal doctrine. Yet who today would argue that Americans therefore once had a moral obligation to return fugitive slaves or observe racial segregation?

Abolitionists and civil-rights activists believed the law was unjust, and they acted accordingly. They rejected the notion that “those who disagree with the law” should nonetheless obey it. So, too, Operation Rescue. But while virtually everyone today agrees that slavery and segregation were wrong, very few Americans agree that an embryo is a person, with a right to life, from the moment of conception.

Still, many would recognize that third trimester abortions, which one of the Wichita clinics performs, are not that much different from infanticide. The fact that such abortions are very rare is beside the point. The question is, By what moral principle can we distinguish between aborting a fetus at seven or eight months and killing a premature baby born at the same stage of development?

Do not expect abortion-rights activists to address such questions. They keep responding to the moral arguments of their opponents by citing statutes and court decisions. They seem oblivious to the fact that the abortion debate is not about what the law is but about what it should be. By forsaking persuasion and dodging the real issue, they do us all a disservice.

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