At first glance, the anti-abortion logic of single-issue partisan voting seems reasonable.
If human personhood begins at the moment of conception, then abortion would be killing a person — an act morally indistinct from the killing of any other human person. If that were true, then, as abortion opponents say, it would be murder. Therefore, legal abortion means legal murder — a million or so legal murders every year. Since these legal murders have been upheld as a constitutional right by the Supreme Court, they can only be prevented by changing the Supreme Court — restocking it with “conservatives” who will overturn Roe v. Wade and all the other cases reaffirming legal abortion as a constitutional right.
And therefore it is a moral imperative to vote only for candidates who will support the appointment of such conservative justices. Given the massive scope of this massive legal murder, this must be the paramount moral concern for every election.
That’s the argument, which I have tried to summarize here in terms that I believe would be broadly agreeable to those who endorse and follow that argument. I hope I’ve succeeded in that, but if not, allow me to quote from such a person directly:
I believe the Bible clearly establishes that an unborn child is a person (Psalm 139:13-15) and that murder is forbidden (Mark 10:19, Exodus 20:13). …
According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, just over a million abortions took place in the United States in 2011. If you believe, as I do, that abortion is murder, then every other public policy problem pales in comparison to this one. As John Piper famously put it, the sheer scale of the problem is enough to make a single-issue voter out of anyone.
Again, at first glance, this seems reasonable: the conclusion follows from the premise. Absolute partisanship based on a paramount single issue based on the Supreme Court as the clearest response to that single issue.
The problem, however, is that a great deal more than just that conclusion follows from that premise. And this is not a small problem.
Consider just the minor matter of a constitutional amendment. Why focus exclusively on partisan control of all branches of government at all levels when they could also resolve this issue, conclusively, by amending the constitution?
In normal circumstances, of course, amending the Constitution is a desperate and exceedingly difficult task. In normal circumstances, therefore, it’s understandable that undertaking such an effort — a steep hill to climb with little chance of success — might be set aside as too much of a long-shot.
But, again, the premise here is that there is nothing at all normal about these circumstances. The premise here is that we are confronted with the horror of legal murder, millions of times over.
I realize that mainstream “pro-lifers” are somewhat embarrassed when the more strident anti-abortion voices talk of abortion as a “Holocaust,” but that conclusion, too, follows logically and necessarily from the premise here. If you believe that abortion is murder, then this is a Holocaust — and that means that everything, including efforts to amend the Constitution, has to be on the table.
But therein lies the problem. The premise says this is a Holocaust involving a million murders every year — tens of millions over the decades. That doesn’t entail a moral imperative for single-issue voting. That entails a moral imperative far greater than anything that can simply be expressed through partisan voting every four years — or every two years, for those who are really gung-ho.
Accepting the premise of abortion-as-murder provides no justification for forming a partisan voting bloc in the hopes of one day perhaps changing the composition of the Supreme Court. That would be an utterly, miserably, monstrously inadequate response. The implications of John Piper’s suggestion that this should make us “single-issue voters” is reprehensible — akin to suggesting that we should willingly collaborate in the Holocaust 364 days a year, while on that one other day voting for the reformist elements of our Vichy Republic in the hopes of eventual change.
This is why it is impossible for the rest of us to do what our anti-abortion neighbors ask of us. They ask us to respect their moral convictions — to understand their premise and to appreciate that their single-issue partisan voting is an expression of those convictions.
But we cannot do that. If we were to accept that they really believed in their premise, then we would have to lose all respect for them due to the appallingly constricted and casual response they claim to that premise. We can overlook the perpetual insult of being told that we are “baby-killers.” We cannot overlook the fact that this is what they imagine constitutes an adequate moral response to the killing of millions of babies.Someone is murdering a baby! Quick, let’s register some voters for a party that we hope will one day pack the highest court with enough justices to ensure that, some day in the future, such baby-killing is illegal. (Maybe not illegal in the sense that women or doctors go to jail for it, they don’t want that — but still, you know, illegal.)
We would lose all respect for the moral convictions and moral logic of our anti-abortion neighbors if we attempted to take their claims seriously regarding this premise of a Holocaust of baby-murder.
We are partisan single-issue voters, they say, because this is our moral premise. But that moral premise does not merely call for them to be reliably partisan voters. It calls for them, at the least, to quit their jobs and take to the streets. Given the extremity and urgency of that premise, circulating partisan voter’s guides don’t cut it.
Fortunately, those same neighbors have repeatedly assured us not to worry about that. Because, unfortunately, every once in a while we see what happens when some unhinged man — almost always a man, almost always a man with a history of misogyny — does take that premise seriously. Some such man realizes that legal mass-murder on such a scale doesn’t merely entail a moral imperative to vote as a reliable partisan, but to resist this Holocaust by any means available.Horrifically, fueled by the inexorable logic of this premise, such men occasionally pick up bombs or guns and set out to kill the baby-killers.
And whenever that happens, our anti-abortion neighbors trip all over themselves rushing to explain that these violent men misunderstand and misrepresent the ideas and ideals of the anti-abortion movement. Such denunciations are always disingenuous and morally incoherent — a bunch of non-pacifists decrying violent opposition to a Holocaust.
These denunciations are, as I’ve said before, admissions that none of this talk about murder and baby-killing Holocausts was ever meant to be taken seriously. It’s transparent hypocrisy, but it still comes as a great relief to the rest of us. And we do not push the point, or highlight that hypocrisy in the moment, because it seems a dangerous thing to point out that such extreme violence is, in fact, a logical and necessary moral conclusion from the purported premise loudly endorsed and promoted by so many of our neighbors. It’s far better to live alongside millions of neighbors duplicitously pretending to follow that premise and using it as a pretext for reflexive single-issue partisanship than it would be to live alongside such neighbors who behaved consistently with its more severe implications.
I appreciate that what I’m arguing here isn’t something my anti-abortion neighbors will enjoy hearing. I seem to be accusing them of a kind of delusional hypocrisy — of not really believing the premise that they say provides the entire basis for their identity and their redefined faith itself as reliably partisan single-issue voters (yea, even to the point of Donald Trump). But this is the best possible conclusion available to me. The alternative would be to conclude that they are complacent collaborators in the face of an ongoing Holocaust — morally stunted narcissists who imagine that biennial voting for the vague hope of judicial reforms was somehow an adequate response to legal mass-murder. (It’s not just voting, they say, I also went to the March for Life that one time. Ooh, did you now?)
It seems kinder and more generous to say, “You do not really believe that premise” than it would be to accept that they really did and that all they took from it was some passive notion of voting for Republicans. It seems kinder and more generous to accuse our neighbors of pretense than to accept their insistence that we must regard them as the sort of people who would’ve imagined that a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Leon Blum” bumper-sticker absolved them from collaborating with the Vichy regime.
It also seems likelier.
After all, their premise — that human personhood begins at the moment of conception — is a relatively recent idea. It was unthinkable and, therefore, unthought of before microscopes and modern medicine began to give us a better idea of how and when such conception occurs. And it remains an immensely hard idea to swallow. (Which is the real reason that a personhood-from-conception constitutional amendment is never really on the table — the repercussions and implications of that would strike almost everyone as absurd and unreal.) It runs counter to centuries of moral intuition embedded in our culture, scriptures, laws and religious rituals. (We celebrate birthdays, we do not baptize zygotes.) Even after rewriting our English translations of the Bible to reflect this new idea, it still commends itself mainly for its reassuring broad-stroke simplicity rather than because it resonates as true.
It’s a claim that many have recently declared that they think, but one that no one has ever managed to feel.