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Pending abortion ruling is an opportunity to build our civic character

Written by Derek Monson

May 25, 2022

The leak of the draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, while unprecedented and damaging to democracy, also presents an opportunity. The upcoming ruling is a test of our civic character – a test of whether each of us can rise above (and in doing so, push back against) the partisan polarization of our society.

To see how, consider two examples – one pro-choice and the other pro-life.

First example: John McWhorter is a pro-choice college professor and a columnist for The New York Times. In a recent column written after the leak at the Supreme Court, he wrote:

I am disgusted that the Supreme Court seems poised to make it more difficult in many cases, and practically impossible in others, for American women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I am aware of how opposition to abortion has been entangled in the nation’s history of racism, classism and sexism. I understand the fear that the reversal of Roe could be a prelude to future decisions threatening other rights involving private life.

However, I am also aware that opposition to abortion is often founded on a basic idea that it constitutes the taking of a human life, with many seeing a fetus at even its earliest stages as a person-to-be that morality forbids us to kill. I know people of this view of all races, classes and levels of education. For them, all the negative effects of doing away with Roe may fade in importance. To them, those things are a lesser priority than preserving life.

I have to work to imagine prioritizing a fetus as a person in the way that they do.

But I think I manage it, and with a deep breath, even though it’s not where I stand, I cannot view the equation of abortion and the taking of a life — or even, as some suggest, a murder — as an immoral position. For many, including me, the priority is what a woman does with her own body. As such, many suppose that to be against abortion is to be anti-feminist. But for pro-lifers, a woman’s right even to controlling her own body stops at what they see as killing an unborn child. To many of them, being anti-abortion is quite compatible with feminism.

In our polarized world, it is easy to think and/or speak of someone who disagrees with you as lacking in their morality or values – that is just following the crowd. In contrast, McWhorter’s moral clarity and consistency regarding pro-life individuals requires depth of character.

Second example: David French is a pro-life attorney and advocate who writes regularly for The Dispatch, where he is a senior editor. In a recent column opposing proposed abortion laws that would create criminal penalties for women who get an abortion, he wrote:

It’s necessary to draw a distinction between “homicide” and “murder.” Homicide is quite simply “when one human being causes the death of another.” Homicide is not always unlawful. Sometimes it’s even justifiable (such as when you kill a person in self-defense).

Punishment for homicide depends a great deal on state of mind. For example, there is a dramatic difference in the law between negligence—which typically leads to a manslaughter charge—and outright murder, which is usually defined as the intentionally unlawful killing of another person.

There may be some women, at the fringes, who believe “my abortion is the same as killing a two-year-old, and I just don’t care,” but that is absolutely not the daily reality of abortion in America. Not only is there no intent to kill, there is no real awareness of what abortion truly does.

So if you recognize the child as a human life, yet you also recognize the mother’s lack of knowledge and intent, what’s the just approach? It’s to target the procedure itself, place legal penalties on the practitioners of the procedure, and to exhibit compassion and support for mothers and their babies.

In a polarized, partisan world it is easy to embrace without question the talking points of our partisan or ideological friends. If you ask even reasonable questions about your side, you risk a knee-jerk accusation that you support the other side. By comparison, French’s decision to intellectually grapple with the application of his principles and values to the policy ideas espoused by people on his side of an issue requires strength of character.

McWhorter’s and French’s articles illuminate the opportunity presented to us by the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on abortion. It gives us a chance, before the final majority ruling is released, to look at people who disagree with us with moral clarity and consistency. It allows us, before a significant legal decision is handed down, to examine with intellectual depth and seriousness the positions put forward as representing our values.

In short, the leak of the Court’s draft opinion is an opportunity to strengthen and deepen our civic character.

The leak of an opinion not yet ready for release by the Supreme Court is undoubtedly bad. It risks the legitimacy of the court as an institution, and in doing so it harms the institutional foundations of our democratic republic. However, bad developments offer us an opportunity for personal and community growth. In this case, we have a chance to build our civic character by how we respond to our political and philosophical opponents and friends.

In that sense, bad developments are a necessary part of the process of reclaiming and restoring our civic and political health as a nation. You cannot forge the civic character and republican virtue necessary to sustain a free society without the heat of civic and political adversity.

So as we approach the Supreme Court’s release of its final ruling in Dobbs, we should be strengthening our civic character. In the process, we will help restore and rebuild a healthy politics and prove that even harmful developments can become the beginning of a better future.

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