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Giuliani's Abortion Muddle

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rudy Giuliani is understandably the Republican front-runner. And not just because of the fading echoes of Sept. 11, 2001. Giuliani is a crucial figure in the conservative movement.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, many conservatives believed that social pathologies such as rising crime and urban decay were irreversible because cultural decline and the breakdown of the family made them inevitable.

As mayor of New York, Giuliani cheerfully ignored this cultural pessimism and began enforcing laws against vagrancy, panhandling and petty crime, thus reclaiming public spaces for a grateful public. He proved that some of America's worst social problems will yield to competence and reforming zeal. And he did it with a ferocious charm that makes it easy to imagine him campaigning successfully at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop.

But Giuliani is now attempting a political vault with the highest degree of difficulty: winning the GOP presidential nomination as a pro-choice candidate. Pro-life passions remain strong among Republicans in leadoff states such as Iowa and South Carolina. Yet the dam-burst of early primaries also includes California, New York and other places more accustomed to a libertarian lean.

There is, however, a question that comes before politics: Does Giuliani's position on abortion actually make sense?

In early debates and statements, he has set out his views on this topic with all the order and symmetry of a freeway pileup. His argument comes down to this: "I hate abortion," which is "morally wrong." But "people ultimately have to make that choice. If a woman chooses that, that's her choice, not mine. That's her morality, not mine."

This is a variant of the position developed by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1985. In this view, the Catholic Church's belief in the immorality of abortion is correct, in the same sense that its belief in the Immaculate Conception is correct. Both beliefs are religious, private and should not be enforced by government.

But the question naturally arises: Why does Giuliani "hate" abortion? No one feels moral outrage about an appendectomy. Clearly he is implying his support for the Catholic belief that an innocent life is being taken. And here the problems begin.

How can the violation of a fundamental human right be viewed as a private matter? Not everything that is viewed as immoral should be illegal; there are no compelling public reasons to restrict adultery, for example, or to outlaw sodomy. But when morality demands respect for the rights of a human being, those protections become a matter of social justice, not just personal or religious preference.

American history has tested these arguments. In debating the Missouri Compromise, Sen. Stephen Douglas said of slavery: "I am now speaking of rights under the Constitution and not of moral or religious rights. I do not discuss the morals of the people of Missouri, but let them settle that matter for themselves." Abraham Lincoln differed: If faith and conscience tell us that enslaved Americans are men and brothers, then slavery must eventually be ended. Passing the 13th Amendment was not "imposing" our moral views on slaveholders; it was upholding the meaning of law and justice.

Giuliani's doctrine of individual sovereignty goes much further than did Douglas, logically preventing even states from restricting abortion. And this raises a question about Giuliani's view of the law itself: Can it be a right to violate the basic rights of others? Given American opinion, progress toward the protection of unborn life is likely to be incremental and partial. It would be foolish to prosecute women who have abortions -- and the law struck down in Roe v. Wade did nothing of the kind. But recognizing these limits and realities is different from asserting that the law should have nothing to do with the defense of the weak.

A number of pro-choice positions can be held consistently. It is possible to believe that human worth develops gradually and that the early fetus is merely a clump of cells. It is possible to accept professor Peter Singer's teaching that human worth arrives only with self-conscious rationality, opening up disturbing new possibilities of infanticide.

But Giuliani has chosen an option that is not an option -- a belief that unborn life deserves our sympathy but does not deserve rights or justice. This view is likely to dog him in the primary process, not only because it is pro-choice but because it is incoherent.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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