January 22, 2005


Dead Reckoning (NR Editors, January 26, 1998, National Review)

The abortion regime was born in lies. In Britain (and in California, pre-Roe), the abortion lobby deceptively promoted legal revisions to allow "therapeutic" abortions and then defined every abortion as "therapeutic." The abortion lobby lied about Jane Roe, claiming her pregnancy resulted from a gang rape. It lied about the number of back-alley abortions. Justice Blackmun relied on fictitious history to argue, in Roe, that abortion had never been a common law crime.

The abortion regime is also sustained by lies. Its supporters constantly lie about the radicalism of Roe: even now, most Americans who "agree with Roe v. Wade" in polls think that it left third-term abortions illegal and restricted second-term abortions. They have lied about the frequency and "medical necessity" of partial-birth abortion. Then there are the euphemisms: "terminating a pregnancy," abortion "providers," "products of conception." "The fetus is only a potential human being" — as if it might as easily become an elk. "It should be between a woman and her doctor" — the latter an abortionist who has never met the woman before and who has a financial interest in her decision. This movement cannot speak the truth.

Roe's supporters said at the time that the widespread availability of abortion would lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, hence less child abuse; it has not. They said that fewer women would die from back-alley abortions; the post-1940s decline in the number of women who died from abortions, the result of antibiotics, actually slowed after Roe — probably because the total number of abortions rose. They said it would reduce illegitimacy and child poverty, predictions that now seem like grim jokes.

Pro-lifers were, alas, more prescient. They claimed the West had started down the slippery slope of a progressive devaluation of human life. After the unborn would come the elderly and the infirm — more burdens to others; more obstacles to others' goals; probably better off dead, like "unwanted children." And so now we are debating whether to allow euthanasia, whether to create embryos for experimental purposes, whether to permit the killing of infants about to leave the womb.

And what greater claim on our protection, after all, does that infant have a moment after birth? He still lacks the attributes of "personhood" — rationality, autonomy, rich interactions — that pro-abortion philosophers consider the preconditions of a right to life. The argument boils down to this assertion: If we want to eliminate you and you cannot stop us, we are justified in doing it. Might makes right. Among intellectuals, infanticide is in the first phase of a movement from the unthinkable to the arguable to the debatable to the acceptable.

Everything abortion touches, it corrupts. It has corrupted family life. In the war between the sexes, abortion tilts the playing field toward predatory males, giving them another excuse for abandoning their offspring: She chose to carry the child; let her pay for her choice. Our law now says, in effect, that fatherhood has no meaning, and we are shocked that some men have learned that lesson too well. It has corrupted the Supreme Court, which has protected the abortion license even while tacitly admitting its lack of constitutional grounding. If the courts can invent such a right, unmoored in the text, tradition, or logic of the Constitution, then they can do almost anything; and so they have done. The law on everything from free speech to biotechnology has been distorted to accommodate abortionism. And abortion has deeply corrupted the practice of medicine, transforming healers into killers.

Most of all, perhaps, it has corrupted liberalism. For all its flaws, liberalism could until the early seventies claim a proud history of standing up for the powerless and downtrodden, of expanding the definition of the community for whom we pledge protection, of resisting the idea that might makes right. The Democratic Party has casually abandoned that legacy. Liberals' commitment to civil rights, it turns out, ends when the constituency in question can offer neither votes nor revenues.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 22, 2005 11:00 PM

It's a great essay, maybe the definitive one of its kind. And if I remember correctly, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of "First Things" fingered not just National Review editors in general but Ramesh Ponnuru specifically as the author of this piece (which he reprinted in his own magazine, even though he seldom does things like that)

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at January 23, 2005 12:56 AM

It hasn't just corrupted liberalism,the culture of violence and death of which Roe is the key plank has corrupted our entire nation. Slavery was a terrible evil, this is much much worse.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 23, 2005 2:33 AM


I first read this essay a number of years ago and still consider it the greatest pro-life editorial ever written. Truly a remarkable job (and I'm with Mr. O'Hannigan in suspecting that only Ponnuru could have written this; no offense intended to the rest of the crew at NR).

Thank you for posting this.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at January 23, 2005 3:32 AM

Hitler, Stalin, An abortionist, a gun and two cartridges: what to do?

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 23, 2005 9:08 AM