Flip-Flop With a Twist

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It's been more than half a year since the Webster decision, and the politicians are still scrambling for the fence. In Ohio, for example, Democratic Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze, Jr., has abandoned his career-long pro-life position just in time to run for governor. Celebrezze's rationale is familiar: Personally, he believes abortion is immoral, but he has decided that government policy should not be based on that view.

This formula, especially useful to Catholic Democrats, has been around for quite a while. The Supreme Court's decision to allow greater state regulation of abortions has enhanced both its popularity and its significance. Unfortunately for Celebrezze and the other candidates who have adopted a similar strategy, the position does not bear close scrutiny.

"I think it's wrong, but…" is a perfectly valid stance on gambling, drinking, prostitution, or any other activity that does not involve harm to others. But the crux of the abortion issue is whether the practice amounts to killing a human being—whether a fetus has the same right to life as a person. If abortion is "wrong," it is wrong for this reason. So a Celebrezze (or a Gephardt or a Giuliani) who believes abortion is wrong, yet declines to "impose his view" on the general population, cannot be taken seriously. Indeed, it is not even clear what he means, unless it's that he's unsure whether abortion constitutes homicide and doesn't want to require others to err on the side of caution.

Such uncertainty does not afflict Boston University President John Silber, who tries to lend some respectability to this fundamentally inconsistent position in a recent New York Times piece. Silber makes it clear that he considers abortion the taking of a human life, morally unacceptable in almost all cases. But he adds that the law should not adopt this view, because the American people are divided on the issue.

Given Silber's belief that abortion is homicide, his deference to public opinion is hard to understand. Why should the lack of a clear consensus affect his view of what the law ought to be? To cite a favorite analogy of the pro-life' movement, should abolitionists have hesitated in their efforts to outlaw slavery because so many people disagreed with them?

On the face of it, pro-life extremists are more consistent. They insist that abortion is murder and that the state therefore has a responsibility to stop it. But it's pretty clear that these activists do not believe their own rhetoric. If they truly viewed abortion clinics as "death camps" where innocent people are routinely killed, they would not simply protest. They would feel obligated to use virtually any means, including armed intervention, to stop the slaughter.

Neither do pro-choice extremists have the courage of their convictions. In a recent issue of the secular-humanist journal Free Inquiry, for example, Tom Flynn defends abortion on demand by arguing that fetuses have yet to meet "the criteria for personhood," which include language capability and self-awareness. Flynn notes that this standard would also allow infanticide, yet he inexplicably restricts parents to killing babies with severe birth defects. Unwilling to advocate "infanticide on demand," he declines to apply his own standard of personhood and thereby undermines his argument.

Back to the muddled middle? Not quite. There is a consistent, principled approach to abortion that has the added virtue of practicality. It begins with the recognition that the issue of when rights exist is quintessentially a government concern. Any definition of when a fetus acquires a right to life will be somewhat arbitrary. But so is the legal standard determining when a child acquires the rights of an adult, yet few of us would reject such a necessary distinction.

Several proposed dividing lines for personhood hover around 20 weeks after conception. (See "Reconsidering Roe," Editorials, May 1989.) Such a limit would allow the vast majority of currently performed abortions. But more important than the precise location of the line is its meaning. Once a fetus is considered an individual with legally enforceable rights, abortion can be permitted only to protect the mother's life. Prior to that point, the government has no business interfering, the only relevant right being that of a woman to choose whether to continue her pregnancy.

In deciding where to draw the line, our legislators and governors should be expected to consult their consciences. It's hard to know what to make of candidates who declare that they won't. Politicians have the luxury of waffling. The laws they make must be explicit.

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