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What Is the Conservative Argument Against Abortion?

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In contemporary American political debate, struggles over abortion are usually treated as conflicts between rival interpretations of individual rights. Those who favor abortion most often invoke the "right to choose" of the woman who has conceived the fetus

Those who oppose abortion focus on the "right to life" of the fetus. But there is a third position that is largely overlooked. Essentially conservative and "pro-family," it favors abortion as the right choice to promote healthy family life under certain circumstances. This argument, which emphasizes the social function of the family over the rights of the individual, begins with the assumption that the possibility of choice matters less than the choices made. It argues that the choice to give birth to a child isn't always the right one.

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If one could travel back in time forty-four years to observe the first pro-life rally ever held on the National Mall in Washington, DC—a rally which the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition (NYPLC) organized in September 1972—liberals would have been in evidence everywhere. In keeping with NYPLC cofounder Sue Bastyr’s description of her organization as “an extremely liberal group,” the protest on the Mall featured a keynote address from the antiwar Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus, who had served as a delegate for George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention earlier that summer. “The anti-abortion forces are not instruments of political and social conservatism,” Neuhaus declared. “Rather they are related to the protest against the Indochina war, the militarization of American life, and the social crimes perpetrated against the poor.”Pro-lifers’ success in framing their campaign as a human rights cause linked to the progressive politics of the antiwar movement and the War on Poverty contributed to their legislative victories in the early 1970s, when they defeated dozens of proposed abortion legalization bills. In 1972, the pro-life movement enjoyed the support of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, as well as the most high-profile liberal Democratic senator in Washington. After Roe v. Wade, this situation changed: pro-lifers who found themselves marginalized in the Democratic Party made new alliances with conservative Republicans, who did not necessarily share their larger values. Yet the pro-life movement’s conversion to conservatism was never complete; the movement retained vestiges of its liberal heritage, and these traces of liberal ideology became the key to the movement’s continued political saliency. By reexamining the forgotten origins of the modern pro-life movement, this essay explores why the pro-life movement emerged on the political left (rather than on the political right, as is usually supposed), and why pro-lifers’ political success has in large measure depended on their ability to ground their message in liberal values.

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First in a groundbreaking book, Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent, published in 1996,' then in various public fora, from academic conference panels to Christian radio call-in shows, and now in a major law review article entitled My Body, My Consent: Securing the Constitutional Right to Abortion Funding, Eileen McDonagh has sought to redefine drastically our understanding of the still deeply contested right to an abortion, and hence, of the nature of the constitutional protections which in her view this embattled right deserves (McDONAGH)

Her argument is complicated and subtle, but its basic thrust can be readily summarized. A woman's right to an abortion, McDonagh argues, should be understood as a right to defend herself against the nonconsensual invasion, appropriation, and use of her physical body by an unwelcome fetus, rather than as a right to choose medical procedures free of interference by the state. We have a right to an abortion not because we have a right to be free of moralistic state legislation that interferes with our medical choices, but rather because we have a right to defend ourselves against the nonconsensual, invasive takings of our bodies, and we have a right to so defend ourselves even if it requires the use of deadly force against a human life (Linda C. McClain, 1992).

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For the most part, it might be argued that we should let nature take its course, and doctors should do nothing in this case: After all, each person has a right to life, so the mother and fetus (in whatever stage) have an equal claim and stake in things. What do we make of this “let nature take its course” argument? This argument does not seem consistent with our current use of medicine; for instance, if we should let nature take its course, then we should not stop any bleeding, take any antibiotics, have any surgeries, etc., since these do not occur in nature. If the extreme conservative cannot be consistent by arguing that nature should take its course in all cases and that we should refuse all medical treatment, then it is not a consistent position to argue that we should let nature take its course in potentially fatal pregnancy cases

And if the extreme conservative position is counter-intuitive and/or inconsistent, and the moderate conservative position is not consistent, then I leave it for the reader to consider: Where does that leave us?

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Linda C. McClain, "Atomistic Man" Revisited: Liberalism, Connection, and Feminist Jurisprudence, 65 S. CAL. L. REv. 1171 (1992);

McDONAGH, supra note 1, at 138-42; McDonagh, supra note 3, at 27-40

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