I suspect the constant trench warfare in American politics over abortion is somewhat mystifying to our overseas observers, and I think abortion poses some real philosophical problems for libertarians stemming from the unanswerable question of when a “fetus” becomes a “person.” Those issues aside, this David Frum blog entry is full of wisdom, not only on abortion, but on the dangers of ideological absolutism in matters political and social.
Now let me say right off: I am not pro-life. I think abortion ought to be legal for the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy and available to protect the health of the mother during the weeks thereafter. I don’t see this as a matter of fundamental human rights, so much as one of accommodating reality. I can’t defend Roe v. Wade as a legal decision, and I would be very glad to see abortion become much more rare than it now, but if the law attempts to suppress abortion entirely, it is the law that will fail, rather than abortion that will disappear. Please don’t email me about this: I have thought about this issue just as hard as you have, and I’m not going to change my mind.
But precisely because I believe in accommodating the realities of abortion, I think those on the pro-abortion side need to acknowledge that the no-concessions approach of the organized abortion lobby is catastrophically mistaken. Abortion rights would be much more secure if they were confined within reasonable limits that squared better with the conscience of the nation.
For that reason, I for one welcome the ban on partial-birth abortion – not only because of the grisliness of the procedure, but even more for exactly the reason that so offends the procedure’s defenders: precisely because it is a way to back into greater restrictions on abortion in the later stages of pregnancy. NOW and NARAL should understand: These restrictions are not the first steps toward a total ban on abortion. On the contrary: They are the first steps toward avoiding such a ban.
While I am not 100% in agreement with this entry, I am about 95% comfortable with it. In politics, as in most of the rest of real life, refusal to accommodate reality is a pretty good guarantee of failure. Arguments about the ideal libertarian society are all well and good (and necessary), but attempting to make the jump straight to that society without admitting any intermediate steps is sure route to failure. This is the sin of the American Libertarian Party, and explains why, even though majorities of Americans agree broadly with its principles, its electoral showing is generally somewhere south of pathetic.
This is heresy, I know, in libertarian precincts. But those same precincts need to stop running from the responsibilities of success, and start thinking very seriously about what compromises to make, and when, and how, if they are ever to make a real difference in society at large. Its all very well to natter on about how taxation is theft, or about how we have an absolute right to own any weapons we want, but if you take this as license to refuse to accept compromises on tax and gun policy that represent an improvement on the status quo ante, however imperfect, then you have consigned yourself to permanent irrelevance and impotence.
Many libertarians, I think, like the outsider pose, and the irresponsibility that comes with it, too much to actually craft real-world solutions and take responsibility for their downsides and inintended consequences. Its always easy to criticize and carp from the sidelines; it is much harder to get in the game.
If libertarians aren’t willing to do the dirty work necessary to make a difference in society at large by engaging with and compromising with our opponents, then we should just admit our irrelevance and powerlessness to advance what we profess to be our deepest values.