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One Last Round On The Culture War (for Now)

My post on how to end the culture war has understandably inspired a lot of discussion around the web. For positive-to-mixed responses, see Chris Dierkes and his colleagues beginning here, and Bryan Pick here. Meanwhile, Daniel Larison contributes some characteristically intelligent criticism here and here. For those looking for a particularly charming example the anyone-who-would-propose-giving-an-inch-to-opponents-of-abortion-is-either-an-ignoramous-or-a-rich-white-guy-(or-both) style of liberalism need look no further than Scott Lemieux's post on the subject. Ed Kilgore, meanwhile, adopts a more moderate and civil tone than Lemieux but defends an equally uncompromising position here.

Having read and pondered these critiques, I'd like to restate something about the intended purpose of my post and then clarify (and sharpen) one of its central points. 

First, my intention. Readers should keep in mind that what I proposed was intended to be something like a hypothetical thought-experiment: If liberals want to end the culture wars, this is what they would have to do. If Ed Kilgore, Scott Lemieux, and other liberals think either that the cost of pursuing the strategy I suggested would be far too costly or that it would fail, that doesn't mean that my core contention about the intractability of the culture war is wrong. I proposed what I think is the only way out. If liberals refuse to take that path, they will have to resign themselves to a future of continuing cultural conflict -- something that Lemieux almost seems to relish. We'll see how he feels the day after the election of our next Republican president (especially if it's this guy, let alone him or her).

Now, the clarification. As far I'm concerned, the strongest argument against my proposal to back away from an absolute defense of Roe came from Ed, who contends that the pro-life movement is a radical moral crusade that cannot be placated. Its members believe that the widespread practice of abortion is nothing less than legalized mass murder. If liberals give an inch or two, pro-lifers, far from backing down or becoming demoralized, will be emboldened to try for a mile. The culture war would thus continue, perhaps even more intensely than before.

The reason this objection calls for a clarification on my part is that I feel I walked into it by speaking imprecisely in my post -- as if the pro-life movement were synonymous with the conservative side of the culture war. It isn't. According to a Pew poll from August 2008 (it can be found here along with numerous other polls on the abortion question), 15 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases. That's the pro-life movement and those who strongly support its maximalist goals. But there is another, larger group -- 26 percent -- that believes abortion should be illegal in most cases. These people lean in a pro-life direction, but they would be satisfied with a range of positions short of absolute prohibition. It is this group that I believe would be convinced to stand down from the culture war if the identity-politics provocation of Roe were removed. That would leave the 15 percent rump of the absolute pro-lifers fighting in the fields. Might they cause trouble in some state legislatures? Certainly. Would they have enough power to make the mess that Ed envisions? I tend to doubt it. But I admit that I'm speculating.

(Despite what Lemieux would have us to believe, abortion was not heavily regulated in many states before 1973 because of the awesome power of the pre-Roe pro-life movement, but rather because for much of Western history it was very widely believed by men and women alike that abortion is a grave moral evil. The breakdown of consensus on this matter -- a breakdown that has led to the current situation in which 54 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases -- is one of many consequences of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.)

A final point. As a (moderate) liberal, I feel the force of the classic rallying cry with which Ed ends his post: "Oppose abortion? Don't have one!" We liberals love this argument because it makes us feel like we're being morally neutral on the issue: whereas abortion opponents want to force all women into one box, the pro-choice position can be affirmed by those who for moral reasons would never choose to have an abortion as well as by those who wish to undertake the procedure. Who but a misogynistic tyrant could argue with such an open-minded position?

But here's the problem: the position isn't morally neutral at all. Consider: Can you think of any other matter in which the state grants individuals the right to determine for themselves what does and what does not constitute murder? Of course not. It only does so on the issue of abortion because (since Roe) the Constitution implicitly denies the humanity of the fetus. Don't think so? How would you feel about a slogan like this: "Oppose slavery? Don't own one!" You'd probably find it morally offensive. Why? Because you think that owning slaves is just plain wrong and that failing to publicly affirm this principle is tantamount to saying that owning slaves is a matter of moral indifference.

I hope it is clear that I'm not making a moral equation between abortion and slavery, as pro-lifers regularly do, but rather using an analogy to drive home the point that the post-Roe Constitution is not agnostic about whether abortion is a moral evil. On the contrary, the post-Roe Constitution actively denies that abortion is an evil. And that's the core (though of course not the only) reason why the culture war persists -- and why it is likely to persist for a very long time, all of Barack Obama's well-intentioned efforts notwithstanding.