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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

“Personally Opposed” to Abortion?

People tell us: “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I think it should be legal.”
Perhaps the notable version of that comes from Roman Catholics abortion choicers: They insist they believe “what Catholics believe” on abortion, but don’t want to force their beliefs on others.

The usual pro-life response is to argue the substance of abortion: Are the preborn human beings with the right not to be killed? If so, should the government defend their rights along with everyone else’s?

Such a response can sometimes produce a profitable discussion, but it misses another point: What do people mean when they say they’re “personally opposed” but claim there is a “right” to abortion that must be protected by law?

Many pro-lifers will immediately answer that such people aren’t really opposed to abortion. That may well be true. But what if we accepted their words just as they gave them?

In fact, people paint themselves into a corner by saying they agree with what “Catholics” believe. The Church teaches that the preborn are persons, they have rights. If we take the words of such “personally opposed” people at face value, then, they are saying something quite different from merely disagreeing with that Church position. What their words have said is that they believe the fetus is a person with rights, and they believe it should be legal for the mother to have that person killed just because she chooses to.

Regardless of whether you’re pro-life or abortion-choice, let’s assume you’re going to have abortion-choice government officials. Which kind would you rather have: ones who think that the preborn are not persons with rights, or ones who think they are?

Even abortion choicers should find the latter kind scary. If an abortion-choice Governor thinks the preborn are persons with rights yet it’s OK to kill them, a question comes to mind: Who’s next?

Now this might be unfair to “personally opposed” Catholics. They may mean they believe what “many” Catholics believe on abortion — namely, that the Church is wrong when it says the preborn are persons with rights. Or they may mean something like others who say they are “personally opposed” to abortion: that even if they disagree with the Church on the status of the fetus, they nonetheless find abortion emotionally troublesome, for instance, or believe it to be immoral because people should take precautions against pregnancy.

They might mean that the fetus is simply a part of the mother, little different from her appendix, or that the preborn are in an odd netherworld between “person” and “mere animal.” They may mean all sorts of things that fall short of affirming the rights and personhood of those whose killing they think should be legal.

In politics, unfortunately, people are not notorious for saying what they mean. The formula of “personally opposed” — whether in its Christian or its secular form — has become a mantra. One says it with a certain piety, one expresses a certain regret, and no one asks what one actually means.

At its best, the formula is a copout — one doesn’t wish to discuss what one really means; one may not know; or one may not wish to say that one’s only guides are random emotions and whatever the political market will bear.

But stated in its Catholic form — apparently conceding personhood and rights — the “personally opposed” mantra is far worse than a copout. Taken on its face, it is a threat to everyone, pro-life, abortion-choice, undecided, and practically any variations thereof. It is to say that this innocent person may be killed simply because another person wants to. Period. The “personally opposed” may find such a homicide to be immoral, silly, creepy, or whatever, but it is held to be that other person’s “right.” All others must not question that “right” and must work to support it.

What are the chances of people asking “personally opposed” politicians what they really mean? I wouldn’t bet on it. And if they do, American politicians, even those with PhDs (particularly those with PhDs) are apt to lapse into humble folk what don’t know nothin’ ’bout them thar high-flown philosophical things (like whether something is homicide or not).

Both pro-lifers and abortion-choicers are more apt to want to discuss other issues. The relatively uninvolved will take the “personally opposed” mantra as one of the current political pieties and go on.

But I suggest that there are those in society who are cheerfully willing to concede that the preborn are indeed persons with rights just as much as anyone else. And they find it “regrettable” that such persons must be killed in order to “benefit” others; but if it would be beneficial, kill them.

And the preborn are not the only ones on their list.

Many of the “personally opposed” may, I hope, say that they have merely slipped into words that might appear to say something like that. We can only hope that if people ask them what they really mean, they will tell us, clearly and plainly, whether or not they think the preborn are persons with rights — and whether being a person with rights makes any difference.

John Walker
John Walker is Research Director of Libertarians for Life; he joined the LP shortly after its formation, and is currently a member of the District of Columbia LP.