Two weeks ago, you may recall, the nation held its 2014 midterm elections. And, as you may also have heard, the people elected a robust Republican majority to the United States House and Senate and to a greater number of state legislatures than at any point in almost a century. The Republican victory was wide, deep and potentially far-reaching.
As this is not a partisan political blog, however, we wish to focus today not on the nature of the Republicans’ victory, but on the manner in which it was, in part, achieved. We believe—and sincerely hope—that the means employed by the Republican party in addressing social issues in this campaign may have positive, long-term effects on those who support life, regardless of partisan affiliation. If that sounds farfetched, consider the following.
Almost exactly twenty years ago, the Republicans in Congress were preparing for the historic election that fall, the election that would sweep the GOP back into the majority in both houses for the first time in nearly half a century. At the same time, conservatives and Pro-Life activists were planning their own action. Two very influential and authoritative conservative organizations, “Project for the Republican Future,” and the “Ethics and Public Policy Center,” jointly proposed a new political position paper for pro-life Republicans that would represent a significant departure from their past adamant efforts to include a call for a constitutional amendment banning abortion in the party’s platform.
These two organizations, headed by William Kristol and the inimitable George Weigel respectively, suggested that the GOP continue to declare publicly its opposition to abortion, but shift its tactical approach away from attempting the overturn of Roe v. Wade and concentrate instead on efforts in the individual state legislatures to “curb the incidence of abortion by seeking maximum feasible legal protection for the unborn.”
“We support,” their statement read, “efforts to return to the people their constitutional right to deliberate on this question in their legislatures. We endorse state-based efforts to expand the boundaries of legal protection for the unborn. And we flatly reject the use of public funds, at the state or federal level, to pay for or encourage abortion.”
In essence, their position acknowledged current law, which allows states to impose some legal restrictions on abortion and, more to the point, recognized “the need for an extensive and ongoing process of public persuasion.” Kristol, for his part, called the strategy “Lincolnian,” in the sense that Lincoln wanted to turn away from slavery gradually while preserving the union. According to Kristol, he and Weigel wanted to end abortion gradually, without further injuring a society that he said had been “deeply divided by the abortion debate for over a generation.”
Now, for our part, we might call the strategy “Aquinan” in the sense that it incorporated beliefs about human law and evil as expressed some 700-plus years ago by St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the basic argument for a change in Republican tactics on abortion was previewed two years earlier, in the June/July 1992 issue of Fr. John Neuhaus’s First Things, in an article entitled “Abortion and Political Compromise” written by Christopher Wolfe, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. Wolfe relied heavily on Aquinas to make his case, which later was adopted, wittingly or unwittingly, by Kristol, Weigel, and eventually most of the future GOP Congressional majority.
According to Wolfe, the way to achieve practical progress and accommodation on the matter of abortion was to heed Aquinas, who, Wolfe wrote, “says that laws imposed on men should be in keeping with their condition, for (quoting Isidore) law should be ‘possible both according to nature, and according to the customs of the country.’” Additionally, Wolfe argued, Aquinas also maintained that “the danger of imposing on imperfect men precepts that they cannot bear is ‘the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break out into other evils, worse still.'”
Now, as it happened, over the course of the next decade, the Republican majority, more or less, followed the path laid out by Kristol and Weigel, and managed to gain a handful of political victories. Most notably, they ensured that funding for abortion would come to be seen not as a basic function of government, but as a radical position. They also eventually won the battle over the late-term abortion practice that came to be known as “partial-birth” abortion, eventually banning the procedure.
More to the point, the Pro-Lifers in the GOP won the war for the hearts and minds of the people, through Kristol’s and Weigel’s “extensive and ongoing process of public persuasion.” By focusing on cautious and practical advances in abortion policy, the Pro-Life side forced its opponents (the purportedly Pro-“Choice”) side into the uncomfortable and yet undeniable position of extremism. Whereas the Pro-Choicers were out in the public square refusing, adamantly and sometimes expressively, to make any concessions, the Pro-Lifers were winning the argument, calmly and unassumingly insisting that all they wanted was to end the legal sanction of doctors sticking scissors into babies’ heads as they moved down the birth canal. As it turned out, then, the change in tactics permitted the Pro-Life side to change policy, to change minds, and to change the public opinion of the movement. No longer the “radicals” in the game, the Pro-Life side succeeded in gaining support and turning the proverbial tide of the debate.
How, pray tell, does this have anything to do with this month’s election, you ask? Well, as it turned out, the GOP employed a similar strategy this past election cycle in recruiting candidates and helping them form their policy positions.
For most of the last few election cycles, you may note, the Pro-Lifers abandoned, or merely forgot, the admonitions of Aquinas and sought to impose their will on a people unwilling to accept it. Republicans like the former Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin, for example, made fools of themselves and their party by trying to pontificate on even the minutest details of abortion/women’s health care policy. Worse still, they tried to wish away one of the more painful and controversial questions in the abortion debate, the status of women and their unborn babies conceived either through rape or incest. They–and the party more generally–learned slowly and painfully that a reliance on magical thinking rather than sound arguments and policy will aggravate a democratic people, who both know better and resent condescension and dishonesty–even in pursuit of a greater good.
In this most recent election cycle, it turns out, the Pro-Lifers reversed course, nominated intelligent, thoughtful and persuasive candidates, and, in turn, generally avoided the abortion trap. What this meant, then, was that rather than discuss their Pro-Life absolutism, Republican politicians focused on the practical features of their message and found points of agreement with the nominally Pro-Life electorate. In so doing, they not only reinforced their own reasonableness, but allowed the Pro-Choicers to take the offensive and to emphasize their own radicalness.
The Pro-Choice side tried its best to revive the “war on women.” But not only did the meme fail to work this time around, it actually made things worse. By focusing relentlessly on abortion, birth control, and their unalloyed support for both “on demand,” the Pro-Choice factions reminded voters that the politicians’ positions on most such matters, and especially abortion, are radically different from most non-politicians in the country. The Pro-Choicers allowed themselves to fall victim to the trap previously occupied by Todd Akin, and thus they unwittingly portrayed themselves as callous, cruel and uncompromisingly extreme. Wendy Davis’ drubbing in the race for Texas’ governorship was emblematic of the Pro-Choice side’s failures. She was supposed to be the woman who could turn Texas purple. Instead, she ended up losing by a bigger margin than did the previous two Democratic challengers. To add insult to injury, her old seat in the Texas legislature was won by a Pro-Life woman, who has been very outspoken on the matter. Wendy Davis failed miserably, as did the entire Pro-Choice movement, which wholeheartedly and disastrously embraced its extremism.
Now, no one expects that the Pro-Life side will score any great and powerful victories in the next Congress or that its political representatives will ban abortion. But then, that’s the point. These Pro-Lifers–the Freshman House and Senate Classes of 2015–are, like their somewhat-distant predecessors, dedicated to the idea of public persuasion.
In his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
The new Pro-Life class of the U.S. Congress seems to agree, both in morality and in practical politics. Partisan squabbling aside, this is good news for the forces of Life.