Ethics & Public Policy Center

Lincoln, Douglas, and the Failure of Colorado’s Pro-Life Vote

Published in National Review Online on November 10, 2020

Colorado voters have rejected a ballot measure that would have prohibited abortion after five-and-a-half months of pregnancy.

Thanks to advancements in medical technology, unborn children at this stage of development increasingly are able to survive outside the womb when born premature. The survival rate rises sharply when a child is delivered just one or two weeks later. At five-and-a-half months’ gestation, the fetus is the size of a papaya and has begun to grow eyebrows and hair. Just one week later, she develops the ridges that anchor fingerprints and footprints.

Yet in Colorado, abortion from 22 weeks onward will remain legal, because 1.7 million voters have made it so. Though perhaps it is unavoidable in a democratic republic such as ours, it is a hideous thing to decide who lives and dies by checking a box on a ballot.

A vote such as this one can only go the way it did when a sizable number of people are convinced either that some killing of some human beings is morally acceptable — or, more likely, that post-viability abortion does not entail killing healthy unborn human beings. A brief survey of the debate reveals why there might be confusion on this point.

A cherished defense of those who favor legal abortion later in pregnancy is that such procedures are incredibly rare and are made available only when a mother’s health is at risk or her unborn child suffers from a life-threatening disease. Perhaps such a belief is comforting, but it nevertheless conflicts with reality.

The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute estimates that, of the 926,000 abortions in the U.S. each year, about 12,000 occur after fetal viability. Far from being rare, there are more post-viability abortions annually than there are gun homicides.

Evidence suggests that women obtain most of those second- and third-trimester abortions for reasons other than a fetal-health condition. According to one 2013 article by professors at the University of California–San Francisco School of Medicine, “Data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

In this interview with one of the U.S. doctors who perform abortions in the last three months of pregnancy, she states that “a large percentage of our patients had no idea that they were pregnant” and obtain an elective abortion after viability for that reason. Southwestern Women’s Options, an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., likewise performs elective abortions through 32 weeks’ gestation and offers them after 32 weeks on a case-by-case basis.

Our understanding of the reality of abortion is hindered not only by the flouting of facts such as these but by a profound resistance to considering abortion honestly. Instead of acknowledging that the fetus is a member of the human species who might possess a right to life, our debate is obscured by nebulous concepts such as the “right to choose.”

But the central question isn’t whether women have the “right to choose.” It is whether anyone ought to be able to choose abortion — in other words, the right to choose what? If abortion is the deliberate killing of a human being, surely that must alter our conversation and our calculus.

Which brings us back to Colorado.

We need not judge the hearts or consciences of Colorado voters to condemn what they’ve done. Presented with an opportunity to protect human beings in the womb when they can survive outside it, nearly 2 million people voted “no.” Should it give us pause that something so monumental has been decided in a voting booth?

A similar question lay at the heart of the debate between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who promoted contradictory visions for how the United States should handle the weighty question of slavery.

For Douglas, the question of whether slavery was moral should have no bearing on policy. What mattered most, in his view, was that the states and the people have the right to decide their policy on slavery for themselves.

“I hold that the people of the slaveholding States are civilized men as well as ourselves, that they bear consciences as well as we, and that they are accountable to God and their posterity and not to us,” Douglas said. “It is for them to decide therefore the moral and religious right of the slavery question for themselves within their own limits.”

But for Lincoln, democracy should not — indeed, could not — be understood to mean that anything, including one man’s choice to dominate another, was permitted as long as it was agreed to by proper democratic procedure.

“When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism,” Lincoln said. “That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave.” This, he went on, “is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes.”

Lincoln was pointing out that the right to choose as such was devalued when the object chosen was morally disordered and a violation of another man’s natural rights. Can we not say the same about abortion, which in its quest for individual freedom snuffs out the life of a tiny man, a tiny woman?

As Douglas may well have counseled, grown men and women in Colorado have exercised their right to vote. Their state will remain one of the few in the country with no limits on the license to end an unborn human life.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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