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November 30, 2012

Victoria Toensing: Pro-Choice Republicans Must Come Out of the Closet


I am a pro-choice Republican. We are not an endangered species. Since the Republican Party declared itself pro-life, most of us have been in the closet.

I appreciate that both viewpoints are sincerely held: Pro-choicers believe that the government should not intrude in such a private decision; pro-lifers believe that life begins at conception. I have supported each.


Today, any Republican who believes, as I do, in a strong national defense and fiscal conservatism, and that limited government is consistent with being publicly pro-choice, knows that if she takes the latter position she will get creamed in the primary. The choice is to not run or to get in the closet. By discouraging potential candidates, our tent gets smaller and we end up with a Richard Mourdock and a Todd Akin, who confuse rape with sex.

As a political matter, being pro-life has not helped Republicans. John McCain lost Catholics by nine points. Romney lost the Catholic vote by two points, even after four years of President Obama’s strong pro-choice position and Obamacare forcing certain Catholic entities to cover birth control.

As a results-oriented matter, the pro-life position cannot prevail. In the 39 years since Roe v. Wade, no pro-life president has overturned it and, because that ruling is constitutionally based, no member of Congress can overturn it via legislation. Even Republican-appointed justices would have a difficult time overturning Roe after four decades because of the conservative philosophy of upholding precedent. If Roe were overturned, each state would decide the issue, and, presumably, local politicians would vote their constituents’ position. Many states would approve abortion, so pro-lifers would not attain their goal of outlawing the procedure.


I am not arguing that our party should be pro-choice. I just want our candidates to feel free to leave the closet. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels wisely counseled Republican presidential candidates last year: “Declare a truce on social issues” and address the dire economic problems. As for morality, our party should live it, not legislate it.

Semi-related: I've noticed a strong tendency, not just among conservatives, mind you, but any political actors, left or right, to think that the way to show strong agreement with a principle is to urge state action (or oppose the retreat of state action from the field, as in the case of drug criminalization). The below doesn't apply completely to the abortion question, because that one question involves, necessarily, another human life, and is not just all about the mother's choices. That said:

A "personal preference" for an outcome, without a preference for state action to forward that outcome, is often considered a sort of fake, politically-expedient stance.

Thus, the line of thinking goes:

If you're really against abortion, you would never say you're "pro-life as a personal matter, but don't favor making it illegal." Those who are really pro-life support making it illegal.

If you're really anti-drug, you wouldn't say "I don't do drugs and in fact would strongly urge people not to do them, but I don't favor laws against them." Someone who's really anti-drug, and is genuinely alarmed by the prospects of drug use, would favor the continuation of the criminalization regime.

If you're anti-gun or anti-gun violence, of course you won't just make a personal choice about gun ownership. No, those who are really against murder will naturally fight to make guns illegal, or at least burden gun ownership in every conceivable manner.

You can't just say you support women's right to purchase birth control. No, that's a dodge. Someone who's really interested in a woman's right to birth control will of course support laws which compel third parties to purchase the birth control on the woman's behalf.

If you're really anti-obesity, anti-diabetes, and pro-good-health, you will not merely be content to propagate the message that the human body is not designed to handle the high quantities of refined, potent sugar currently part of the American diet. Such "half-measures" are what's gotten us into this Obesity Trap to begin with. No, the person who is really anti-sugar will take his relationship with the anti-sugar cause to the next level -- he'll "marry it," he'll make it official and legitimate, by joining Michael Bloomberg's crusade to pass laws against sugar sale and consumption.

It's usually taken as a truth -- an assumed, usually-unstated truth, but a truth nonetheless -- that those genuinely concerned with some social ill will naturally support state action to combat it, and those who do not support such state action must either be 1, not terribly concerned about the issue at all, or 2, actually lying in their claim to have any moral objection to the ill, claiming to be "personally" opposed to the ill in question while arguing against laws in the matter in a transparent have-it-both-ways political dodge.

As to the latter: The idea seems to be that that's "too easy." It's too easy, it's too politically expedient to be "personally" opposed to abortion (or drug use, or sugar) while not favoring any state action in the area. It's a popular position -- you get to make moral noises (popular) while not pushing any laws to enforce that moral choice (also generally popular) -- and ergo was most likely selected for its popularity.

I genuinely agree with the idea that if something feels "too easy," it probably is. Life is a series of tradeoffs, after all. You select A, and don't select B. You are forced to choose, and, generally, when you make a choice, your foreclose a lot of other choices. Choosing is an affirmative act with consequences; it's an important action, or at least should be. And the personally opposed/politically neutral formulation feels like a too-easy way to avoid making a choice of real consequence.

But that's a guideline and not a firm rule. I thought the idea that adult stem cells could produce medical breakthroughs was similarly "too easy" -- I suspected the universe wouldn't permit us to simply avoid the moral choice of destroying human embryos in exchange for possibly saving (or at least dramatically improving) other human lives. However, it seems to have turned out that adult stem cells are in fact a more productive avenue for research -- in this case, the "too easy" answer turned out to be not only viable, but optimal.

I'm wondering, lately, about this unexamined assumption that I'm pretty sure underlies the thinking of most. (I say this because I discovered it underlay my own.) "One should not do [X]" and "One is legally forbidden to do [X]" are not in fact points on the same line, with the latter being further along the line than the former, the former representing a weak form of the prohibition, the latter representing the strong form, or "real" form, of it.

Rather, they are points on entirely separate lines, one line representing the personal and truly moral, the other representing law, political might, and the official, backed-by-possibility-of-jail-or-fine prohibition of the state. One does not in fact inevitably lead to the other in strong form.

Although the "personally against" line of thought is criticized as "soft" or a "dodge," it's also the more pro-freedom line, as the state is not involved in the personal decision of citizen. It's not frequently acknowledged that the person who doesn't want to pass a law isn't necessarily "immoral" or unconcerned with the ill in question, but simply prizes another moral choice -- the value of personal freedom -- more than most other moral choices.

On morality, I'd also note that a thief with two convictions to his credit may in fact stop thieving, due to the three-strikes law; but that's not actually a choice based in morality. It's simply a pragmatic choice based on the consequences for a third offense. I don't know where people come down on this philosophically -- I suppose most would say it doesn't matter, as far as orderliness in society goes, why a citizen chooses to not commit a bad action, whether it's due to an actual belief in an ennobling morality or a very simple and self-interested desire to avoid punishment. But that's a utilitarian mode of thought, and many people reject utilitarianism, preferring true morality in personal choices. Prohibition may decrease the incidence of a particular action but it does not actually inspire a moral preference against that action.

I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with the way politics works -- that one group assembles a temporary majority, and then does its best to start Makin' Some Laws largely to demonstrate hostility to the values of the losing coalition. It's might be the case that people will always do this, and there's no sense in even arguing against it.

But I'm not sure about that. Maybe people can start to think about larger principles than the instant issue. Maybe people -- maybe even liberals -- can start to take seriously the idea that respecting a fellow citizen's freedom to choose and freedom to live by his own moral code is even more important than the critical issue of Big Gulps.

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posted by Ace at 01:45 PM

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