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On Abortion, Donald Trump Goes The Way Of Stephen A. Douglas

Lincoln and Douglas
Image CreditPublic Domain

Abortion, like slavery, cannot simply be ‘left to the states,’ as if it’s an ordinary political issue. The republic itself is at stake.


Former President Donald Trump declared this week that abortion should be left to the states, that there should be no federal abortion legislation because “this is all about the will of the people,” and “whatever they decide must be the law of the land.” He released a video stating his position on Monday and reiterated it later in the week.

By taking this stand, that abortion should not be a federal issue, Trump has not just betrayed his pro-life supporters but taken the side of Stephen A. Douglas over Abraham Lincoln. He has insisted that popular sovereignty, not moral principle, should decide the abortion question, just as Douglas insisted popular sovereignty in the new federal territories must decide the slavery question.

In practice, that means a patchwork of abortion laws across the country, at least for now, ranging from near-complete bans in some red states to unrestricted abortion until birth in some blue states. But it will not stay this way.

As Lincoln understood about slavery back in the 1850s, the eventual political consequences of tolerating abortion in some states will be the acceptance of it in all the states. (We’ve already seen this with the abortion referendums in Kansas and Ohio, with more referendums on the way.) Moral neutrality on abortion — Trump’s “popular sovereignty” approach — will weaken the foundation for legal prohibition and open the way to tolerance and eventually political acceptance.

Because of the first principles at stake here, the logic of America’s antebellum slavery debate applies entirely to the abortion debate of our time. Indeed, the two issues are closer than even most pro-lifers realize. Today’s Democrats view abortion just as antebellum Democrats viewed slavery. They think the constitutional rights of an entire class of people (women) depend for their vindication on the denial of all rights to another class of people (the unborn). This is precisely what southern Democrats believed about blacks and slavery, and why they were so adamantly against emancipation. 

But the two issues are alike in another way as well: They both represent a grave danger to freedom itself and the survival of our republic. In the runup to the Civil War, Lincoln argued over and over that slavery wasn’t just bad for slaves but also bad for free men and ultimately for republican self-government.

The whole issue hinges, in Lincoln’s view, on how we conceive of the right of self-government. Namely, what is its foundation, and what are its limits? Lincoln thought Douglas’ construal of self-government — that one group of men could enslave another, so long as they voted on it — was deeply flawed. He said it amounts to this: “That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” 

Such a view of self-government eventually leads to its ruin because it posits every majority as an unlimited sovereign and therefore as a potential tyrant. Part of preserving freedom and self-government, said Lincoln, was recognizing its inherent limits. There are some things not even a majority can impose, like slavery. “When the white man governs himself … and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism.”

As most Americans now recognize, Lincoln was right and Douglas was wrong. And like Douglas, Trump is wrong today. Moral neutrality on abortion in our time is like moral neutrality on slavery in Douglas’ time. It might seem politically savvy, a way to thread the needle on a seemingly intractable issue for the sake of building a coalition, but ultimately, it’s a recipe for tyranny and anarchy. If the unborn are Americans who have a right to life, as some states maintain, then that right cannot simply be waived because majorities in other states want to deny them that right.

Obviously, this means abortion must be banned in every state or eventually allowed in every state. Politically, though, that’s an unappealing prospect, which is why Trump’s “let the states decide” approach to abortion probably is the most politically savvy course — for now. It certainly is the most expedient. As my colleague David Harsanyi pointed out, President Biden and his lackeys in the corporate press were reduced to attacking Trump this week not for his moderate position but for his inconsistency. (Never mind the media’s nonchalance about Biden’s own much more dramatic reversals on abortion.)

By taking credit for overturning Roe v. Wade but rejecting any federal restrictions on abortion and letting states decide the question, Trump can direct attention instead to the radical position of Biden and the Democrats, which is far outside the mainstream of American opinion on the issue, and present himself as a moderate, which he is — no pro-lifer seriously believes Trump cares all that much about the abortion issue as such.

But the danger of taking what amounts to a morally neutral or indifferent view of abortion is that it reduces it to just another political issue subject to the whims of the electorate. Abortion is more than that, though. It cuts right to the heart of our understanding of democracy and self-government — which, as Lincoln said, must have limits, or it becomes despotism. If one person can snuff out the life of another, and no third person is allowed to object, then in what sense do we have self-government? Democratic practice, after all, must be rooted in the principle of human equality. There are some things even a majority cannot justly decide to do, and to deny that is to open the way to tyranny.

In the end, Trump’s attempt to thread this needle, to choose the politically savvy route over what is right and just, might well prove to be as savvy as Douglas thought he was being with his retreat to “popular sovereignty” on slavery. But as Douglas found out (and Trump might soon find out) moderation on a question of first principles only goes so far, especially when you’re trying to court people who insist that the rights of an entire class of people must be denied to vindicate the rights of another. Douglas thought he could compromise with the slave power, but instead he set in motion the Civil War. Trump, using the same flawed logic, thinks he can compromise with the pro-abortion power.

He’d be better off following Lincoln, who knew that America could not continue forever divided between slave states and free states, that we would “become all one thing or all the other.”

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