Public Arguments: An Aborted Presidency

The day Bill Clinton lost the election of 1996 fell on Friday, January 22, 1993, two days after he took the oath of office. It had taken him less than 48 hours to enlarge the circle of those who would die from abortion; his first executive orders were death orders. He opened military hospitals to abortion. By allowing federally funded clinics to recommend abortion, he made all taxpayers complicit in a practice that many abhor. He eased the way for the new French abortion pill, which is used mostly by younger women, often with ugly side effects.

All of us who wished Bill Clinton well—and Crisis really did want Bill Clinton to be better than that, for his sake and the country’s—felt pain, grew angry… and slowly but grimly concluded that the culture wars would be even worse than we had feared. Friday, January 22, marked the abortion of a presidency.

Two days later, things got worse, for the President did not (as he had promised) direct his attention “like a laser beam” on the economy, but instead announced another deadly executive order, one that struck at the heart of the military’s moral order and everyday morale. He would, he insisted with uncharacteristic firmness, end the military’s long-standing ban against homosexuals entering military service. He claimed to have been led to this position by moral principle, specifically the principle of “fairness.” But this invocation ignored and also violated a deeper moral principle; viz., that homosexuality is not morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Moreover, from the point of view of public policy, the official approval of homosexual status would have consequences dramatically different from those of mere toleration. The state has an obvious reason to promote rightly-ordered heterosexual conduct within marriage. It has no duty to promote homosexual behavior or to grant it public status as the moral equivalent of heterosexual marital behavior.

To do so would be to violate the traditional and well-reasoned canons of Jewish and Christian morality, and would oblige millions of citizens rightly to resist their government.

Nonetheless, the folly of the Clinton administration in selling its political and moral authority so cheaply, so instantaneously, and so dramatically on behalf of the gay lobby is a subject for a later time. Crisis will return another day to the issue of gays in the military—and to the reasons why homosexual behavior is morally disordered.

One role of Crisis is to frame public arguments, and the argument we mean to treat in this issue is abortion. [See “The March for Life, 1993,” below.] For the first presidential outrage was both to heighten the official endorsement of abortion and to increase the number of abortions.

More and more, through deception and euphemism, the American people are being led by their government into the primitive and barbaric practice of abortion. They are being led to think of abortion as a moral good, a civil right, and a form of political progress. All of these pretenses are without exception contrary to truth. Abortion is not a moral good. Pace the courts, it is not a true, only a fraudulent, civil right since it violates the fundamental social compact. In that compact, according to Hobbes and Locke, every individual gives up the freedom to kill for personal purposes; in exchange for the individual’s renunciation of violence, the state pledges to use its monopoly over lethal power to protect even (and especially) the weakest and most vulnerable individuals.

Finally, abortion does not represent political progress; it signals political decline. For the first time in the history of these United States, a generation has narrowed the circle of those it recognizes as endowed with the inalienable right to life. Every generation previous to our own had included the unborn under the protection of the laws. Our generation has cast them aside, quite literally, on rubbish heaps. Let future generations judge us. Let them write that we were barbaric; they will hardly dare call us civilized.

Let future generations show photographs or videotapes demonstrating just how the unborn are today put to death in the wombs of their mothers: by slicing knife, suction pump, head-crushing clamps, acids, and other grisly means. Let them build museums if they dare to the actual refinements of our so-called “clinics.” Our own generation cannot bear to face what we are doing. We will not hear of it. Our television will not show it. The grisly work of abortion is done, can only be done, out of sight, out of mind. Our generation is too sensitive to witness what it does to its helpless ones—but not too sensitive to do it. If one day we become the generation most held in contempt, we shall richly deserve it. Our unwillingness to speak honestly about our deeds will condemn us.

The death toll in the 20 years since Roe v. Wade is (up till 1988) 23.6 million and, at approximately 1.5 million per year since, now at least 29.6 million. That is a number equal to 11 percent of the living population: Dead. Gone. Day by day during 1993, the oldest among these 29 million would be celebrating their twentieth birthdays. Some would be in college, some in the military, some working and getting ready to start families of their own. This huge cohort is one of the main reasons why, after the “baby boom,” there is a “baby bust.” The 29 million aborted ones aren’t here to laugh and love and argue with the rest of us.

They are in truth, a silent generation. Silent as a tomb.

About 20 million of these missing ones were white, about ten million black. Since the number of currently living blacks is 31 million, the missing 10 million represents an enormous loss for, without abortion, America’s black community would now number 41 million persons. It would be 35 percent larger than it is. Abortion has swept through the black community like a scythe, cutting down every fourth member.

This dreadful devastation has been wreaked upon the black community by pro-abortion forces, a hundred of whose rudest activists formed a wall to block the March for Life on January 22, until the police pressed them to let the peaceful marchers through. Blind to the work of their own hands, the pro-abortionists chanted this disgusting doggerel:

Racist! Sexist! Anti-gay!

Born-again bigots, go away!

Racists! It is not the marchers for life who have encouraged ten million abortions in the black community. It is not they who led the chanting for the Grim Reaper.

And weigh for a moment that line, Born-again bigots. Bigotry against born-again Christians is the last respectable bigotry in America. It is indulged in almost every night on television and in countless movies. The devout Christians of the Bible Belt are constantly and endlessly ridiculed by those who affect to be their superiors. They must be weary of such ridicule. As Cardinal O’Connor said at the January 22 rally on the Ellipse, “We”—speaking for all those subject to ridicule simply for being for life, we Jews, we Evangelicals, we Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, and even Atheists for life—”We will not be intimidated.”

Nonetheless, despite our best efforts, as of the last official count, 1,641,000 abortions were performed during the 366 days of 1988. Most of the young women on whom these abortions were performed (928,000 or 58 percent) were 24 or younger. They were mostly schoolgirls; 406,000 or 26 percent were teenagers between the ages of 11 to 19. One does not like to think of starting out sexual life and motherhood with so brutal an experience.

Does a young woman forget her first abortion? Does she ever forget?

There are two victims in every abortion, read one sign in the March for Life: Mother and child.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all facts about abortion, however, is that 31.5 percent of all abortions, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, are to Catholic women. To be sure, a great many of these women are not “practicing Catholics” (certainly not so when consenting to this deed). Indeed, those who practice abortion are excommunicated by it—self-excommunicated, automatically.

Catholics have a habit, altogether proper, of identifying themselves as Catholics even years after they have stopped receiving the sacraments, recognizing full well that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” The imprint of baptism is indelible.

We each have sinned. No one is in a position to throw stones. Still, the entire American Catholic community must have a most uneasy and painful conscience about its failure to set an example in this crucial aspect of public moral life. We need to be better. We need to do more in our Catholic institutions to support young women in distress—and long before their distress arises. Every young woman needs to know of a place where she can bring a child to life rather than to death. Every Catholic campus and school and parish should support such places. That is what it means, in practice, to be “a life church.”

The Long March—and Its Victories

Though I have lived in Washington since mid-1978, not until this year had I actually attended the March for Life. I was always there “in spirit,” of course. (This is a little like saying that at the Incarnation Jesus did not actually come in the flesh but came among us “in spirit.”) I really dislike being a demonstrator. I have demonstrated in other causes, but only after overcoming fierce inner reluctance and distaste.

But I have long felt great sympathy with these marchers; they are like the people I grew up with and like the parishioners from around the country that I have met: plain, ordinary, humble, good folks, with all their faults and limitations—and also all their daily heroism and aspirations.

I wonder how the “M & B” crowd in the President’s cabinet could possibly understand them—Zoe Baird at $630,000 per year, Robert Reich at $540,000, no one at less than $100,000, several at far more than a million. But M & B (“money and brains”) is a Wall Street Journal category meaning more than money; it means a passport heavily stamped with foreign entries, an expensive foreign car, a knowledge of wines, an impressive high-level résumé, a sophisticated set of values, a degree or two from the Ivies and a certain ontological weight, so to speak, in the world of symbols and ideas. M & B means sharing a culture in which being anti-abortion is akin to zealotry, and being opposed to gays in the military (or seeing homosexual behavior as a sin) is clear evidence of bigotry.

The people in the March for Life live and breathe and move in another culture—once the mainstream culture of America, but now being shunted aside as an unwanted counterculture. They wear (as one can see with one’s own eyes) plain American clothes from K Mart, WalMart, Penney’s, and Sears. They carry plastic this and plastic that. Not only are they the “forgotten Americans” lionized in the recent presidential campaign, they (and their beliefs) are openly despised by the M & B crowd.

Many of these good people have been marching for 20 years now. They come by bus or train or car. Few are Frequent Flyers. They have a right to be tired. Knowing how they are perceived and even lied about by the press, they have a right, too, to feel discouraged. If they do, they do not show it.

No historian will be able to write that all Americans of our generation were asleep, when the nation turned away from those majestic words of Thomas Jefferson about “the Right to Life.” No one will say that all Americans went quietly into that dark night, descended without protest into barbarism, or accepted morally the clinical “procedure” of abortion. These marchers have saved the honor of the United States.

They constitute the largest pro-life movement in the civilized world. Future generations will celebrate them as heroes in our time, prophets of a deeper reverence for universal rights, and forebears of a wiser civilization to come. The sophisticated patrons of the atrocities of the abortion clinics will be wondered at, since 1.6 million deaths per year had not been enough to awaken their revulsion. How will historians explain this?

Abraham Lincoln once argued against Stephen Douglas that it is not right for states to vote pro-choice, when that choice entails depriving human individuals of the free disposal of their own lives. Arguing the same principle, the Marchers for Life have already won great victories. Like Lincoln, they have had to bear discouraging defeats. Like Lincoln, they have had their share of generals—in their several religious establishments—who seemed afraid to fight and to win. Like Lincoln, they have endured. They have kept the principles of Life before their eyes. They have trusted in the glory of the coming of the Lord. He has trampled in the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. The Battle Hymn of the Republic belongs to them. It sings in the tramping of their wearing steps.

I wish, if I might make a wish, that next year the “marchers will begin from the Jefferson Monument, for their cry is Jefferson’s. I hope that next year their march will pass by Lincoln’s Monument, for their capacity for suffering and long endurance is his, and their arguments are his. (Even the architecture of those monuments is theirs. They are the heirs of the Greco-Roman-American philosophia perennis, that long-lived “public philosophy” of which Walter Lippmann wrote.) They belong to Jefferson and Lincoln. For any liberty of choice that disrespects the right to life of others is no true liberty. Such “choice” is unworthy of America. It shames a people claiming falsely to be free while denying that freedom to others like themselves.

Pro-life people see in the victims of abortion what they themselves once were: they cannot kill these other selves without denying the principle on which their own safety is founded.

Before the awful clarity of this powerful moral argument, their opponents already have retreated. Very few people today can stand before the public, and say with straight face, that they are in favor of abortion; can describe in vivid detail what actually happens to human flesh and blood when the “clinical procedure” of abortion is performed, and say that they approve of it. Most abortion advocates have retreated to a second line of defence, borrowing the rhetoric that in economics and every other phase of public life they resolutely mock and abhor—the rhetoric of “free choice.”

Robert Reich, for example, writes scathingly of the “myth” of individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance in the economic realm, as do most statist liberals today. But these are not liberals. They are impostors who oppose free choice in smoking, in cutting down trees, in books to be assigned to grade school students, in the selection by parents of schools to which to send the tax dollars assigned for their own children’s education. These are, in every matter, our own “soft totalitarians.” Their dream is to “educate” the rest of us to their beliefs and valuations. Only when it comes to killing children in the womb do they use the language of Reaganomics.

Abortion advocates are forced to employ an illegitimate principle that is not theirs and which they do not elsewhere hold, because the Marchers for Life have made it impossible for them to hold themselves before the public as advocates of bloody abortion in itself. Abortion advocates are pro-choice because they cannot be fully and frankly and in exact detail pro-abortion.

This is the great victory won by 20 years of marching for life. No one should underestimate its public value. Without it, the nation would simply have “put this issue behind it” after the ipse dixit of the Supreme Court in 1973. (During 1992 in Casey, the Court was still pathetically pleading with the country—or at least with what it called its “thinking citizens,” presumably its M & B crowd—to do this.) The Marchers for Life have not allowed the country to act in blindness, without full and fair public deliberation, without argument, without attention to the barbarous “clinical procedures” so glibly recommended.

To the tired veterans of the March for Life, that 20-year-long march and counting, the entire nation, and all our posterity, are much indebted. God bless them every one!

A Further Suggestion

A second modest suggestion for the marchers next year is that they invite the best-known leaders of the evangelical churches, especially Billy Graham, so that the latter might also play leadership roles. The evangelical leaders should speak—and could attract their own legions of constituents. In many states around the country in which Catholics are not numerous, evangelicals cast the largest share of votes for life. More than the press would like to admit, it is the 30 million born-again Christians and other associated evangelicals who form the main body of those who recognize in abortion a violation of the Holy Scriptures and of Jeffersonian rights, both. It was a surprise and a modest disappointment to discover that this year’s March for Life was so predominantly Roman Catholic—according to the Post poll, 65 percent.

The March for Life is already ecumenical; many Protestants and Jews take part. Still, if the numbers of others grew proportionately to those of Catholics, the March could be far larger. It needs to reach out broadly with open hands; it needs the skillful leadership of our Protestant brethren, especially from the nation’s South and West. Such devoted leaders were often our greatest allies in the battle against communism when some of our sophisticated friends in the mainstream churches would rather have been caught dead than anticommunist For their service to our Lord, they have won the honor of being hated.

Meanwhile, to those who for the last 20 years have led this March for Life, to Nellie Gray especially, and all you others, the nation owes deepest thanks. You made pro-abortion forces ashamed to be pro-abortion.

You awakened shame in a vast majority of the doctors of this country, who refuse to take further part in abortion procedures. You stirred the consciences of nurses, who emotionally could not bear to go from one hospital bed, at which they were desperately trying to save preborn life, to another at which they were obliged to assist in killing it. Many couldn’t stomach this sudden switch in roles, and you helped to give them moral reasons for refusing any longer to participate.

In more and more counties around the United States, quite voluntarily, abortion facilities have quietly vanished. The circle of places in which death is dealt out on a routine basis by the quarter-hour, in still and bleak surroundings, has steadily been shrinking.

During the Clinton ascendancy, beginning with its ominous first executive orders and for a long time to come, it may be impossible to teach through law that abortion is a disfigurement of America’s true face. But even if we do not get laws against abortion, shame may be a more powerful force for diminishing the number of abortions.

If doctors refuse to do abortions, and tell the public why, public approval for abortion will decline. If nurses refuse to participate, and begin to talk, the steady stream of “clinical procedures” will slowly be aborted. If women who have had abortions, and have become remorseful about it, begin to share their experiences more widely, other women will be strengthened to choose life. If journalists begin to visit abortion factories and tell the public what actually happens, and show pictures of it, then the public may come to feel revulsion. Public moral pressure is very strong. It has led millions to stop smoking. It has encouraged millions to jog. (If the Catholic Church presented jogging as a penance, this torture would be denounced as “medieval.”)

It is important to tell the truth about abortion. Sometimes the aborted refuse to die, and need to be attacked again, and then again. Sometimes the unborn, aborted, are thrown away with garbage. A people sick on euphemism cannot accept too much reality.

As the Supreme Court itself implied in Casey, the American public has now become so ensnarled in obfuscations, expectations, new habits, and blinkered understandings that the Court itself did not have the courage to reverse Roe v. Wade, even though its pro-abortion majority has had to abandon its original reasoning. [See Russell Hittinger, “What Really Happened in the Abortion Decision,” October.] One cannot now accuse the Court of being altogether blind about the evil it is doing. The Justices have begun to suspect the awful truth. Stare decisis they do not know quite what to do with, and they have resolved to try to tough it out.

Although conscious of their own integrity and sobriety of mind, as they must be, and puffed up with full awareness of their responsibilities, as necessity requires of them, even Supreme Court Justices have consciences, at night when they are alone, consciences bound by more than their own desires, and ultimately by an undeceivable and almighty Judge of all. Even they must sometimes ask themselves, as Pontius Pilate did: What is truth?

It cannot be easy for Justices of the Supreme Court since 1973 to think that they have been good defenders of the right to life. It cannot be easy for them to believe that life is safer in 1993 than it was when they thrust our people into this Dark Passage. Of course, I have met certain Supreme Court Justices often enough in person to have observed that they can be self-confident. They would have to be self-confident to do what they have done. Self-confidence, however, is not infallibility. For that, we Catholics set exceedingly high standards which Supreme Court Justices do not meet and dare not even claim. By self-confession, then, they may be wrong.

So Justices, too, need prayers. In every church and synagogue throughout the land, prayers should be formally offered for them, that the light streaming from the God of life may one day shine upon them. The nation needs their clear defense of Jefferson’s right to life.

Revisiting Vatican II

It now seems clear that the Vatican II catch-phrase, “the people of God,” is subject to many radically different interpretations. Such a phrase can suggest, and often has suggested, something quite pagan. We are a people like any pagan people. We can be “cultural” Catholics, as a matter of sensibility, without obedience to truth or to God’s commands ever entering into discussion. We can happen to be a people who are born Catholic, and who have certain complexes, residual instincts, and particular social imaginations. The central focus of the concept is on ourselves.

Again, the concept of “the open church,” a phrase used as the title of my book in 1964, has also communicated an ambivalent message. It could be a sign of confidence and sallying forth, a sense that one is driven by the truth, and has nothing to fear from any encounter with others. But the concept can also be imagined passively. The church is merely a sieve with no real substance of its own, a bag that can be punched around, a bit of clay to be molded by every “spirit of the age” that comes along. That is, the world gives, the world teaches, the world enters in, the world gives the form to things; the people of God are little robins opening their beaks to worms fed them by the world.

You may not know, as I did not until recently, that throughout Vatican II every discussion in St. Peter’s was taped on two separate taping systems. A complete record exists, and faithful transcripts have been made from those tapes, and have now been published in 56 volumes. Included also is every shred of written commentary submitted to the antepreparatory commissions, as well as to the preparatory commissions that worked during the Council in advance of the actual presentation of texts. Every written intervention submitted by any bishop in the world to the relevant commissions has also been included. The indices to these volumes are exceedingly useful. These volumes may be found in certain good libraries in the United States, under the title Acta et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II (Vatican Press).

In that collection, by the way, can be found all the written and oral interventions of Karol Wojtyla at Vatican II, undergirding the case made below by Rocco Buttiglione in the splendid chapter of his book that we are privileged to present for the first time in English.

In This Issue

Catholic means ecumenical, and so we are happy to inaugurate in this issue two new columns, Judaism Today and Evangelicals Today. To inaugurate them, we are lucky to have Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle, Washington, and Dean Curry, professor of political science at Messiah College, Pennsylvania. Rabbi Lapin is the founder and director of Toward Tradition and author of many occasional writings of pleasurable penetration and wit, and Dean Curry, who has written for Crisis in the past, is an astute observer of the role of religion in society, as he has shown in his many articles and reviews. These two columns, we hope, will put our readers in touch with intellectual and other events in the communities of important allies in the cultural wars that presently grip this nation and others. From time to time, a variety of authors will contribute to these columns.

Similarly, we are very pleased to announce another new column, Lifewatch, which the distinguished thinker Hadley Arkes has agreed to contribute. Arkes, too, is well-known to our readers from such contributions as his analysis of Mario Cuomo’s abortion stance; he is the author of, among other works, First Things. With his usual brilliance of observation and argument, Arkes will help our readers keep their eye on the war against life that is presently taking place on so many fronts in our time, from abortion through medical experimentation and eugenics to euthanasia.

Dinesh D’Souza, under whose editorship tremendous changes were brought to Crisis, will be devoting more time this year to completing an important book, but will be staying on with Crisis as a writer and publication committee member. In addition, an experienced and unusually erudite publisher and editor, David Bovenizer, most recently an editor and vice-president of the Henry Regnery Company, has joined the editorial staff of Crisis as Executive Assistant. He will organize the many facets of publishing Crisis, and many of our writers will doubtless come to know him through his work in helping their work see print. David will also direct the execution of our new business plan and $1.5 million fundraising campaign for 1993-1995.

Our immediate target is to grow to a circulation of 20,000 readers during the next two years. Because of the depth and fury of the culture wars ever more tightly gripping the nation, we expect our actual readership to grow far beyond that. It will be our aim to supply a missing conceptual and narrative framework in public discussions of moral and cultural questions—the framework historically provided by Jewish and Christian faith. The origins of culture lie in cult. And the formative cult of the West has been our people’s worship of the One God of Judaism and Christianity, referred to variously by our Founders and early presidents as the loving Providence, Governor, Judge of the universe, and gracious Creator of all things. Apart from this conceptual and narrative framework, the moral virtues by which alone the habits of self-government are constituted cannot be understood, let alone loved, aspired to, and practiced.

In order to be an American, no one is obliged to be Jewish or Christian—no religious test may be imposed—but, on the other hand, in order for American institutions of self-government to work, their Jewish and Christian conceptual and narrative framework must be deeply embodied in the hearts and actions of our people. It would be virtually impossible for the necessary virtues to be understood, loved, or practiced apart from that framework.

Moreover, this conceptual and narrative framework is a public and social reality. It does not live solely in the intimate and private reaches of individual hearts, although indeed it does have there its happy habitation. In order to thrive in individual hearts, it must also be incarnated, so to speak, in public institutions, public speech, and public deeds. For no Republic can long survive the schizophrenia of a public symbolic world at variance with its people’s inner life. The public world must echo what is in the hearts of its citizens, and vice versa. Otherwise, the times seem out of joint, the nation seems to be seriously off track, the people sense disease. Hypocrisy runs rampant.

We hope that this issue, with its new columns and the focus of its major (and also its shorter) articles, outlines clearly enough to our readers the agenda of the new Crisis. We hope that it suggests the lineaments of the great cultural war in which our nation like other nations is now engaged. We hope, as well, that it begins to arm our readers with public arguments designed for effective public use.

Skirmish in the Cultural War

At many private dinners these days, when the conversation sooner or later turns to abortion, “overpopulation,” contraception, gay rights, women priests, or any one of the many other sex and gender issues that inflame the passions of our time, the Catholics present may sooner or later be turned upon. A friend reports that at such dinners, when he may be the only Catholic present, he adopts an ironic mode of response. It always works, he says, to bring to light a desperate longing among modern people to be told that their own current passions are mistaken and destructive.

If my friend’s dinner interlocutors accuse the Church of backwardness, he agrees, even asserting that the Catholic Church should begin to teach young children that there are no sexual sins; that everything is permitted; and that their Christian duty is free experimentation into every nook and cranny of sexual possibility. All this he says quietly, as if without irony and in a calm and ecumenical tone. (When a devilish spirit arises in his breast, however, he sometimes adds quietly: “Woody Allen understands the natural law better than the pope does: ‘What the hearts wants, the heart wants’.”)

When my friend finishes speaking, there is dead silence. It is not the route his dinner companions want the Catholic Church to take. If it did, who would be left to hold the line, any line, for their children?

My friend’s conclusion is the following: “What your fellow dinner guests actually want is for you to defend in public what they won’t. They want the pleasant feeling of being more progressive than thou, while having you defend what they do not dare to defend (but absolutely count on). That is a pleasure you must never, ever allow them to indulge.”

An Editorial Apology—Sort Of

Americans, it has been said, usually begin their speeches with humorous one-liners, designed to set their listeners at ease and on a common equal footing, as befits a democratic people; whereas, the saying continues, the Japanese, a more ancient and formal people, typically begin their speeches with an apology. On this occasion, dear readers, allow me to end in Japanese style. An apology is due for three typos in my introductory column in our last issue. Of these, the one that most offended editorial pride was a mistake in Latin, due to a last-second copywriter’s change: anno domini, alas, came out as anno domine. We see much evidence of the decline of Western culture, but had not hoped to contribute to it, and hence this concluding Japanese apology:

Haec olim meminisse juvabit.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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