Selected Skirmishes: Mario's Choice


A number of years ago, an actual friend was attending actual Catholic couples counseling, a group experience. During one woman's particularly zesty description of her favorite high-octane marital technology, my disgusted compadre suggested that Higher-Ups might be a bit squeamish about such behavior, wedded or un. The rebuke from the outspoken Mrs. Roustabout was direct: "Well, God is fine. But I really don't think He should intrude into your personal life."

Such neat separations are the rage amongst the Politically Correct these days. The Hon. Mario Cuomo, from the pulpit of the Church of the New Deal, has seen the light on abortion in just such terms: It may be immoral religiously, but as a matter of public policy, it's cool. Bishops, archbishops, even cardinals from Mario's other church (dial 1-800-VATICAN) are going ape over this division of labor (so to speak) and are now issuing proclamations that the posthumous Mr. Cuomo may end up exceedingly uncool. Damn.

Mario's tiptoe through the abortion minefield is entirely loyal to the general thrust of the pro-choice constituency: Whatever one's personal views on abortion, the pregnant woman's free choice must be protected. Now, this is the conclusion that I am most comfortable with, and I even believe the trimester angle devised by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade to be the optimal solution. But that's because I believe close calls are best handled by keeping the state at bay. By the looks of my fellow "pro-choicers," there are a lot of one-issue freedom fighters hanging around Planned Parenthood.

So reflexively regulatory are the pro-abortionists that their current campaign is to get city councils to declare their communities "pro-choice." If they truly were, residents would take individual positions on the matter. The longstanding preoccupation with government subsidies for abortion is also decidedly anti-choice; shouldn't "pro-life" taxpayers have the right not to fund abortions?

Where are these Jeffersonian crossdressers on the minimum wage? On victimless crimes? On the corporate income tax? On South African sanctions? Exhausted from controlling, regulating, censoring, zoning, policing, taxing, sanctioning, and proscribing, these pinpoint libertarians toss a dart and pick out abortion as the one human activity worthy of all-out defense against the encroachments of the state. Their motto could be: If it's not pregnant, regulate it.

Actually, abortion has relatively weak standing as an activity meriting protection, because the issue of individual rights v. state regulation is clouded by the clash of opposing individual rights. Clearly, the crux of the issue is determining when the prospective citizen's right to equal protection begins. "Choice" simply assumes the issue away, by denying that the nascent being possesses any such rights.

That's an assertion no more compelling than the opposite position that life begins at the moment either biological parent reaches for a cigarette. A serious individual-rights position recognizes the complexity of the matter. Tracing the instant at which prospective life becomes solid citizenship is troublesome; sonograms are difficult to translate into constitutional standing. But at least the Pope has gotten the pro-life position straight: Any earthly intervention in the process disturbs the Grand Design. Hence, birth control is generically ruled a sacrilege.

The anti-abortion argument should rest on a blanket commitment to nonintervention in the reproductive process. The act (or avoidance!) of safe sex may prevent a divinely inspired life just as does abortion. As birth control, abortion falls onto a continuum. The willingness of the great majority of pro-lifers to countenance abortion in the case of rape or incest (or danger to the mother) simply recognizes this birth-control continuum. If abortion is Murder One, how does the unfortunate relationship between the victim's folks change the legal policy? Murdering an innocent cannot normally be excused on such grounds: "Yes, I bumped the guy, your Honor. But his mother had been raped!"

Roe has given us a realistic compromise on this excruciating issue. (That the Court discovered such a rule in the constitutional right to privacy is fishy; the current Court will head in the right direction by insisting upon actual legislation in the several states on the matter.) In baseball, the tie goes to the runner; in public policy, the nod should go to individual choice, particularly where religious belief must be invoked to persuade otherwise and where a substantial fraction remain skeptical.

It is obvious that a woman (or man) should generally be allowed to exercise discretion over her body. It is not obvious—to all or even most of us—that this abridges another's freedom. As long as all manner of birth control devices are socially acceptable, it is inconsistent as well as undemocratic for any one sect to invoke a speculative version of divine intervention here. As a matter of law, the kinky Catholic woman is correct: God should not interfere with your personal life.

And, Mario, so long as you're likely to burn anyhow, why not try a little non-aborting choice in your political philosophy? This line about the value of tolerance in leaving people to choose has a few hundred thousand rather nifty applications. But try to patch things up with the Bishop. Because then you really will have cause to prepare for your eternity.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.