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The Right's Abortion Problem

Those of you who spend all of your time on the left side of the blogosphere have missed the right's recent and ongoing display of indignation at the decision of the University of Notre Dame to invite the President of the United States to deliver its commencement address this spring. This is a Really Big Deal for many on the right (and especially for a certain kind of pro-life Catholic) because Barack Obama is a strong supporter of abortion rights, and, as Stephen Barr put it on the First Things website earlier this week, "Abortion is a defining issue of our time, in the way that slavery was in the mid-nineteenth century and segregation and racial discrimination were in the mid-twentieth century." Inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame is thus morally "analogous to overlooking pro-slavery or segregationist views in those eras." 

There are many possible objections to the analogy, which pro-lifers wheel-out at every opportunity, but I want to focus on just one of them -- namely, the (for the right) troubling fact that very few Americans agree with them about what's at stake in abortion, not even the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the highest profile Catholic university in the country, who has no intention of backing down in the face of criticism from the right. One way of responding to this divide is to accuse those who don't share the pro-life movement's moral urgency of having made a "Faustian bargain" -- that is, of having sold their souls for the approval of the nation's pro-choice liberal elites.

But there's another possible response, which is to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans -- roughly 85 percent of them, according to most polls -- simply don't perceive the same moral reality as pro-life absolutists. Some of these millions of Americans see abortion as a matter of moral indifference. Others, however, are morally opposed to abortion and would never choose to have one themselves and yet oppose threatening women and their doctors with arrest and jail for choosing otherwise. Many in this latter group also make a basic moral distinction between choosing to have an abortion, which they might judge to be a grave evil, and supporting the decriminalization of the choice. Does Barack Obama, or has he ever, encouraged women to have abortions? Does he perform them himself? If either question could be answered in the affirmative, then I suspect Notre Dame and Father Jenkins would never have invited the president to speak at commencement. (Indeed, in that case Obama most likely would never have been elected president in the first place.) But as it is, I suspect that when lots of people in the muddled middle on abortion hear the furious cries of the abortion absolutists, they wonder just what's gotten into them.  

And that's why the analogy to slavery and civil rights is so inappropriate. Pro-lifers like to compare themselves to the morally pure abolitionists who were dismissed in the years leading up to the Civil War as irresponsible radicals but whose uncompromising convictions ultimately won the day. There's just one problem: There is no evidence whatsoever that pro-lifers are winning converts to their cause -- or even persuading their fellow citizens that abortion is a particularly important issue, as slavery certainly became in the 1840s and '50s. Yes, young people today are a bit more likely to support somewhat greater restrictions on abortion than their parents are. But there is no sign that they consider the president to be the moral equivalent of George Wallace, circa 1963. When the pro-life absolutists insist that he is, they succeed only in sounding morally ridiculous.