Lifewatch: Unplanned Gifts

The mind of the establishment media was reflected, as ever, by Mr. Peter Jennings of ABC News on the night that the White House was moved to fire the Surgeon General, over her remarks on sex for the single person: “Joycelyn Elders,” he reported, “has finally rubbed President Clinton the wrong way.”

But character is destiny, and it was only to be expected that, when the Administration concentrated its wit on the replacement of Joycelyn Elders, it would merely deliver up a more passable version of the same thing. Her replacement, whoever it was, would share the Administration’s view on the rightness of abortion, and the aptness of fitting out youngsters with some form of contraception. Dr. Henry Foster, an amiable man, and an obstetrician from Nashville, seemed to fit the mold well enough. And it could hardly have occasioned much surprise that an obstetrician with his views should have been involved in some abortions. But the reactions that flared in response to this nomination bore surprises even for many pro-life leaders and their allies in Congress. A needling, but not very important appointment suddenly turns into a crisis, and experienced hands in Washington have to throw out, overnight, the calculations they had made about their own strategic interests. The flash of opposition had illuminated some things in the landscape and revealed a different view of the political terrain. And in these reactions, still unfolding, there are lessons to be drawn.

At the end of January, in a meeting of pro-life leaders in Washington, the prospect of Henry Foster had not even registered on the horizon, as a looming appointment worth noting. One lobbyist of a major pro-life group was offering his own, realistic assessment of the interests, and priorities, of his group. He recalled the controversy, during the Bush Administration, over the policy of withdrawing federal funds from agencies that counseled and promoted abortion. That policy was eminently justified, but it was attacked in the media as a “gag rule” and contested in the courts. Some pro-life groups found themselves drawing deeply on their resources to defend the regulations, eventually without success. But even if the effort had been successful, this lobbyist rather doubted now that the interests at stake in that issue had justified the political capital that was expended in the affair. After all, no abortions would have been restricted even if all the federal funds had been removed from the clinics of Planned Parenthood.

Yet, if that assessment was right, it should have held even more aptly in the case of Henry Foster, since there was not even a case here of promoting abortions with public funds. But the same lobbyist who had offered this sober reading of costs and benefits would find himself in a prominent position, just a few weeks later, publicly opposing the nomination of Dr. Foster. Evidently, the energies of his organization had been deeply invested in research, and then in advocacy. He had put himself out on a limb, and by staking out a position, he had committed the prestige of his organization to the defeat of this nomination. In short, they were drawing on their political capital once again, and once more they seemed to be amply justified. If they won, the capital they expended could come back to them many fold, for they would have raised morale in the pro-life movement and sparked a sense of new energy.

And once again they might have learned that there are no mechanistic rules. Once it became known that Dr. Foster had been an abortionist, and hardly an incidental abortionist, the pro-life organizations could hardly let the matter pass without comment. They had to register their objection; they could have done no other. But even they could not have anticipated the resonance that they evoked in the Congress, and the sense, taking hold over night, that this nomination was doomed. As of this writing, the intensity of the coverage has abated, and Foster may hold on, but the political calculations do not figure to change: For a Senator, especially from the South, there is nothing to be gained by voting on this nomination. But on the other hand, there is a danger of giving serious, needless offense. Mr. Clinton, by this point, cannot afford to back away from yet another nominee. Still, the word can be conveyed discreetly to the nominee that he could avoid embarrassment for the President if he withdraws; and Dr. Foster may then discover a powerful interest in spending more time with his family.

In the meantime, there has been vast damage done to the party of abortion, and their leaders grasp that point with a recognition unclouded by sentiment. That much is confirmed by the depth of the anger they express now at Bill Clinton for allowing things to proceed to this point. Consider, after all: Abortion became legally entrenched with the decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in June 1992, and then it seemed to become politically entrenched with the election of Clinton. All legal barriers, all manner of official reproach, had been swept away from these surgeries. And yet, the actual rendering of an abortion may still be regarded as so disreputable that a man who did it is considered, for that very reason, unfitted to serve in a public office of high visibility. It goes without saying that, the next time there is a need to fill a position of this kind (and that may be soon), the staffers will not be taking chances. They will be straining to assure that the candidate is free from even the slightest traces of association with abortion. For the party of abortion this must be a humiliating turn. The leaders have long recognized that they must go beyond their legal victories, that those victories will not be secure until they can remove, from the laws, any words that call into question the rightness of abortion. What Lincoln said about the proponents of slavery could be said with a comparable aptness about the proponents of abortion. This and only this will satisfy them: that we must cease in calling [abortion] wrong and join them in calling it right. And after a while, silence will not do: “we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”

But now, as they reached the limit of their legal victories, a dynamic is suddenly moving in the opposite direction. There are no measures yet to roll back the number of abortions, but there is evidently a disposition in this new Congress to vote, on one matter after another, on the premise that there is something undesirable, something wrong, about abortion. Savvy as they are, the partisans of abortion know that this kind of sentiment, taking hold in the public, made firmer for each vote, foretells serious trouble for them.

Their strains of temper have begun to show in the commentaries offered by their friends in the press. The pieces have been curiously strident, and the story line centers on calumny: Fanatics and zealots, determined to get their way at any cost, have been willing to defame a good man and represent him as an evil character or a moral imbecile. And yet, in all of the comments by pro-life leaders, I have not seen a single attempt to characterize Foster, much less paint him as a bad man. Several commentators have in fact gone out of their way to remark that, for all they know, he is a man of the most decent reflexes. Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, made that point when he was questioned at a press conference, and he sought to explain that his members simply could not mute, or conceal, their convictions in principle on abortion.

But in the pro-life movement, buoyancy is chastened by sobriety, and hope is always attended by wariness. In my own case, the first surge of satisfaction gave way to suspicion: The new pro-life members of Congress are looking for some way to express their sentiments, but without doing anything too unsettling to their constituents. They might be willing to withdraw federal funds, or stop promoting abortions abroad, but that is still different from trying actually to forbid some abortions. The storm over Henry Foster may give some congressmen the chance to chalk up credit on the pro-life side, without having to do anything overly serious. That still worries me, that credit can be bought so cheaply. But the incident over Henry Foster may teach us not to discount the importance of these symbolic happenings, especially if they begin to accumulate. The decision on Foster will be followed soon by a decision on returning to the States the authority to refuse funding abortions in the case of rape and incest. Then there will be the funding of abortion in posts overseas. And then perhaps research on embryos. And on and on, as we try to add to the list. I am willing now to concede — far more than two months ago — that this chain of decisions could be profoundly important even though it does not restrict a single abortion. There may be something transforming, after all, for congressmen in the simple experience of voting on abortion, in a chain of cases, with the chain becoming lengthier, until it begins to describe a design. As their votes settle in a pattern, some congressmen may come to discover that their judgments are firmer than they thought, and they may feel firmed up themselves by the solidarity of their friends voting with them. As Aristotle understood, conviction may be built by firming up habits. Practice and success may themselves breed conviction, and from there, this new majority in the Congress may be primed to spring to projects even more astounding.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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