A reader asks:

If abortion is “always wrong,” more than that, “morally wrong,” then why make it legal for “pragmatic reasons?” Isn’t this a bit like the argument for torture? Everyone knows that torture is morally wrong, but some want to preserve the option, or give the appearance of preserving the option, for pragmatic reasons? The abortion question is difficult precisely because it is a pragmatic, but immoral, option.

There are a couple of responses to that. The first is that torture is now being committed by members of the government, not by private individuals. Authorizing or demanding that government-paid officials practice abortion is different than merely allowing citizens to perform the practice themselves in the private sphere. That’s why it’s possible to, say, support a policy that bars federally funded abortion, while allowing private individuals to do the same thing. What a government can do must meet a higher standard than the private choices of a private person – because the government represents all the people, not just a few. (That said, torture is just as illegal for private individuals as it is for government employees, so this particular analogy is moot. It would suggest that governments should have lower standards of moral conduct than its own citizens.) The second and stronger response is that the evil of abortion is committed within the confines of a human being’s own body. To deny that someone has a property interest in her own body is to deny the very basis of a liberal political order. It is to make the most fundamental liberty – the right to choose what we do with our own bodies – close to meaningless. Now, of course, it is argued that the fetus or unborn child is also a person. And so two property interests conflict. My pragmatic solution is to allow a woman the legal right to abort her child in the first trimester, where the fetus’s claim to personhood is weakest. That’s the situation in most countries allowed a democratic vote on the question. With torture, no such property interests conflict.

RAPE AND INCEST: Here’s a second email:

We now know that court nominee Harriet Miers backed an amendment in 1989 that sought to ban abortions except those to “prevent the death of the mother.” That precludes rape and incest, two situations that can lead to pregnancy. (It also dismisses other medical events in which pregnancy can severely tax the welfare of a sick woman.) So to answer your question about how someone could consider abortion moral, I’d ask you how you could consider abortion immoral in those situations. Asking someone to carry those fetuses to term against their will is a special private hell that no one should legally be forced to experience. I would argue that it is immoral and that such an event is a stone’s throw away if a Miers Court comes to fruition.

I’ve never understood the moral argument about banning all abortion as the taking of life, while allowing it in cases of rape and incest. I fully understand the psychological and simply humane reasons for allowing someone to abort in those cases. But if your argument is solely about human life, how it is created is irrelevant, compared to the fact that it is created. Miers’ position seems to me more coherent, if insensitive and cruel to a mother in such a circumstance. Equally, if your criterion is that abortion should be legal if it advances the mental health of the matter, I can see the point. But that’s such a nebulous standard it could be and is used to justify any abortion, including the horrifying later-term cases, which are intuitively very hard to distinguish from infanticide. Hence my unsatisfying political compromise for what is still, to my mind, a pretty clear moral issue. At the core of my compromise is an understanding that politics and morality are over-lapping but separate spheres. That distinction between law and morality is at the heart of the liberal project; and attacking it is at the heart of the theo-conservative and hard-left project. In that sense, I am a proud liberal.


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