The Magazine

The Right Choice

Hadley Arkes on natural rights from the Declaration to Roe v. Wade.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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ARKES'S CLAIM is that the Democrats are right: A national argument over, say, partial-birth abortion could easily unleash a train of thought that would lead to the discrediting of all abortion in America. I tend to think it will be more difficult than Arkes believes to make effectively the argument that laws allowing abortion are unconstitutional. For one thing, Arkes's confidence in the power of reason to inform practical life directly seems naive. For another, his presentation of the American Founding identifies modern "natural rights" with classical "natural right," as well as with the "natural law" teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. In "Natural Rights and the Right to Choose," he presents the great tradition of Western political thought as more seamless than it really is.

If we understand America in light of Lockean "natural rights" alone, as some conservatives do, there is a line of thought that leads to the promiscuous application of the principle of consent to all areas of human life. Locke can be viewed as the grandfather of the soft libertarianism of our time.

To take Arkes's challenge seriously, we must begin a national debate over the true understanding of human nature and human dignity. Indeed, there is an additional urgency to this argument now, as the threats of biotechnology begin to loom over us. Unless we become clear as a nation that abortion is wrong, women will--I predict--eventually find themselves compelled to submit to therapeutic abortions of genetically defective babies and then to do whatever is required to enhance their children genetically.

Some of this, of course, is already happening informally through pressure imposed by physicians and HMOs. But the real coercion has not yet begun. We will not be able to protect the genuine reproductive freedom of women--their right to have and love their own babies--unless there is a pro-life consensus embodied in our law. Those who believe the effective regulation of biotechnological development can be morally neutral about abortion are simply wrong.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls."