The Magazine

Honor Killing, American-Style

What science and Roe v. Wade made possible has become virtually mandatory among our self-anointed elites.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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President Obama's appointees, so diverse in many ways, have certain underlying similarities. In the standard categories of race, age, and sex, they are as diverse as any administration's before them--though they adhere to a standard of good looks quite unlike the most recent Democratic administration. Intellectually, Team Obama is just as inclusive: not just Harvard and Yale but Columbia and Cornell, Chicago South Siders and North Siders; stimulus enthusiasts (Christina Romer and Larry Summers) and stimulus skeptics (Romer and Summers in the 1990s). Strict orthodoxy reigns only on one issue--an issue which need not be on the president's overcrowded agenda at all: abortion. In the Obama administration there can be no dissent from the view that abortion must be unrestricted, paid for, and with no shilly-shallying about parental notification, partial birth abortion, or other such measures that would actually reduce the frequency of abortion.

Certain appointments stand out. For HHS, where abortion regulation resides, the president chose a Sadduccee of abortion purity, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius. Despite her kindly mien, Sebelius is a strict constructionist of abortion rights. As governor, she used her veto to maintain the rights of Kansans to obtain late-term abortions, performed by any means necessary, by providers of various degrees of competency, and in facilities--filthy or clean--of their choice. Only one Obama appointee outdoes her. Dawn Johnsen, appointed to head the Office of Legal Counsel at Justice, sees herself as the Lincoln of reproductive freedom. To restrict access to abortion is a kind of slavery, she wrote, "prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment, in that forced pregnancy requires a woman to provide continuous physical service to the fetus."

On every issue other than abortion, Obama is content to let a hundred flowers bloom. It's odd because abortion is one of the few areas of national life that neither is in crisis, nor presents any political threat. But even odder, Obama's fundamentalism is athwart the genuine diversity of feeling on abortion among the American public. We hold a wide range of different, even logically inconsistent views on whether abortion is right or wrong, should be free of any restriction or abolished. We enjoy, moreover, considerable opinion-mobility on the issue. National sentiment swings for and against, reflecting changes in mood as well as the embarrassing fact that many of us have held all of these views at various times in our lives.

Americans form reliable majorities around two contradictory positions. One is that abortion is definitely wrong when it crosses the line dividing it from infanticide. (Of course where to draw that line remains at issue.) The other is that abortion is definitely permissible in certain cases: for victims of rape and incest, for mothers whose pregnancy threatens her health, for pregnancies where the fetus has a grave birth defect, and (sometimes) for one's own convenience. The juxtaposition of these two majority opinions for and against abortion, impossible to reconcile with one another, displays a profound civic virtue. Taken together, they certainly don't provide an answer to the moral and ethical quandaries of abortion. But they do make abortions available with fewer restrictions than in many other Western countries, they permit freedom of conscience to those who are left out of the consensus on both extremes of the issue, and they seem to have brought about a general willingness to observe the rule of law. The result is that even the most passionate among us live angrily in peace with equally angry neighbors.

One would expect that a new administration would be happy to leave in place a political arrangement that works so well--and so elegantly demonstrates that at home, we live by the virtues of engagement, diplomacy, and renunciation of force that we preach to others. But far from it. On January 23, Obama reversed the Mexico City Policy that restricted foreign aid to groups that do not provide abortion services--an international version of the Hyde Amendment. Obama is also poised to rescind a regulation protecting the "conscience exemption" on abortion for medical institutions and doctors and nurses (mainly Catholic), which allows them to decline to provide services that violate their beliefs.