[This piece is running in two installments in my conservative area of Virginia.]
A two-part message I'd like to give to pro-life activists: 1) More than many liberals, I agree with you about the moral seriousness of abortion. But 2) I also believe that what you are doing with that issue in our nation's politics is a big mistake that is damaging the nation.
And I bet that you will agree that I am right--if you will honestly follow my argument. That is my challenge to you.
First, where I agree with you.
I reject the too-easy argument (made by many liberals) that the abortion issue should be settled by the idea that "a woman has a right to control her own body." She may well have such a right, but that argument skips over the central issue: when a woman is pregnant, something is there that is not "her own body."
And the question on which the abortion issue hinges is: how should we regard that "something," and what status should we give it?
Americans are divided on that question.
The answer that many in the pro-life movement give is that from the moment of conception, this "something" should be considered a "human being." On that basis, they conclude that - because we regard a human life as sacred - the just-fertilized cell (and all its subsequent stages of development) is therefore entitled to all the human rights. Including of course the right to life.
Many on the other, pro-choice side believe that there's an important difference, in terms of human status, between an ovum that has just been fertilized by a sperm cell and a newborn baby looking up at its mother's face.
But -- whether it warrants being called "a human life" in the early stages or not -- it is nonetheless clearly something that, over time, is becoming increasingly human, and it is something that will become a human being if it is allowed to survive.
Surely, it seems clear to me, some moral weight must be given to that.
But Americans who agree that "human life" is sacred nonetheless make different judgments on how much weight should be given. They differ on how "human" a fertilized egg and then a fetus are. And they differ on how much weight should be given other values at stake in an unwanted pregnancy.
Unfortunately, these differences have damaged America's politics in two ways: 1) one concerns how pro-life people feel about the people who judge these things differently from them; and 2) the other concerns how they deal politically with that difference in judgment.
A lot of pro-lifers, I have learned over the years, regard pro-choice people with moral disgust. And they assume that only immoral people would be pro-choice. The oft-heard statement that "one cannot be a Christian and a Democrat" - which translates as "no good person can be a Democrat because the Democrats are pro-choice" -- captures this view.
It injures our politics for one large group of Americans to regard another large group of Americans as bad people. But more than that unfortunate cost, this moral judgment is demonstrably false.