A Step at a Time

by Jay Johansen
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Note: This article bears an "Ohio Right to Life" copyright because it was originally written for Ohio Right to Life. However, it represents the author's personal views, and not necessarily the policies of Right to Life. Pregnant Pause as an organization doesn't explicitly take a stand on this question, but the author is our webmaster, so we don't oppose what he says.

Should pro-lifers support proposed laws that would protect some babies from abortion, but not others?

Many pro-lifers answer, No. If it would allow any abortions at all, they explain, than for pro-lifers to support it would make us accomplices in those abortions. By protecting some but not others, we would be saying that some lives are move valuable than others, and thus we are falling into the pro-abortionist mindset of setting relative, arbitrary values on human life. We must never, ever compromise.

I respectfully disagree.

A couple of years ago I saw a TV news interview with Barney Frank. Mr Frank is an openly homosexual member of Congress who generally holds far-left views. I doubt I agree with him on much of anything. But he made one statement in that interview that I believe was absolutely correct.

At the time, Congress and the administration were debating homosexuals in the military. The reporter asked Mr Frank what he thought about a certain compromise proposal. He said he supported it. The reporter asked how he could support it when it didn't give him what he wanted, complete and open acceptance of homosexuals in the military. Mr Frank replied that it was better than the present policy, and anything that was a step in the right direction he would support, and then work from there.

Of course, Mr Frank's idea of "better policy" is not necessarily mine, but I believe he made a point which is just as valid for pro-lifers as it is for gay rights activists. Namely: take anything you can get that's an improvement, and then come back next year and use that as the starting point.

I agree wholeheartedly that one should never compromise on moral principles. But there is a vast difference between compromising on principles, and compromising on a specific piece of legislation.

Suppose you are standing outside a burning building. Ten people are trapped inside. I'm sure we would all agree that the morally correct thing to do is to try to save them all. But suppose you could reach and save only the nine who happen to be on the first two floors. The tenth is on the top floor, far beyond your ability to help him. Would you say that because you cannot save all ten, that the morally correct thing to do is to stand and do nothing while the nine you could have saved burn to death?

Note that an important point in my "fire analogy" is that you are saving everyone you can. Compare this to a slightly different story: You are outside this same burning building with ten people trapped inside. You could save all of them. But one of them is an old enemy who spread vicious rumors about you a few years ago that ruined your reputation, cost you your job, etc. So you decide you're just going to let him burn to death while you save the others.

Clearly, there is a vast difference between these two stories. In the first case, you are saving everyone you can. You let one person die, not because you consider his life less valuable, but because there was nothing you could do about it. In the second case, you are deliberately letting someone die out of malice. Arguably, this is morally equivalent to murder.

As I write this, the President has just vetoed a bill to ban partial-birth abortions, and Congress is working on a possible override. I came across an article from a pro-life leader who criticized the whole partial-birth effort on the grounds that it would prevent very few abortions, while allowing the vast majority of abortions to continue.

Sure, even if passed this bill will only prevent perhaps a few hundred abortions per year, a tiny fraction of 1%. If abortionists simply switch to other methods, it might only prevent a few dozen. But ... suppose it only prevented one abortion. To that one child, it's all or nothing. Wouldn't that one life be worth saving?

And if this bill would make so little difference, why are all the pro-abortion organizations fighting so hard against it? There's no mystery, they openly state their reason: They fear that it would set a precedent. If this year we outlaw partial-birth abortions, maybe next year we'll outlaw abortions for sex selection, and the year after that all late-term abortions. Who knows where it could lead?

That scenario is far from fanciful. How did we get where we are now, anyway? The abortionists didn't just come along one day and demand that abortion be legalized throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy, everywhere in the United States, with no questions asked, for any reason or no reason, and supported with tax dollars. No, they started out with a small step: convincing the Colorado legislature to legalize abortion in cases of rape. That passed in 1967. Then they went to other states, pushing slightly broader bills: rape and incest, deformed children, abortions very early in pregnancy. Finally, when it was clear that they had gotten as far was they were going to get with the state legislatures, they went to the Supreme Court in 1973. Roe v Wade was a dramatic step, but even there, it is carefully worded. It appears to preserve restrictions on late-term abortions and to allow regulation of abortion. They didn't throw these things out until later. They kept some room so that they could back down if public opinion was too outraged. (But America was pre-occupied with the Watergate scandal, and Roe v Wade just slipped though.)

The abortionists took over ten years, at least 34 bills in various state legislatures, and a dozen court decisions to move us from an almost-absolute ban on abortion to its total legalization. And that doesn't count the time they spent on public relations preparing the country for their first legislative proposals. They have now had 20 years to establish and strengthen their position. It is unrealistic to think we can undo all this overnight.

If we manage to pass some restriction on abortion, no pro-lifer is saying that we should pat ourselves on the back and go home. Rather, we save as many lives as we can this year. Then next year we come back and try to save a few more.

In practice, in politics, when you demand all or nothing, you usually get nothing. We must compromise our way to total victory.

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Posted 14 Sep 2000.

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