Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Culture Wars v. the Culture of Life

Published in Commentary Magazine on April 12, 2015



A few days ago I wrote a piece warning Republicans of the coming culture wars, led by Hillary Clinton, who will make the “war on women” a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. Liberals believe they can use social issues to bludgeon conservatives into submission and then defeat.

There’s no question that in some cultural areas, like gay marriage, traditionalists are losing ground. But when it comes to the issue of unborn life, which has profoundly more important moral implications, notable progress has been made, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Start with the number of abortions, which has dropped from more than 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.06 million based on the latest data. The abortion rate in the United States is now at its lowest point since 1973. And public opinion continues to shift in a pro-life direction. For example, a recent YouGov poll found that 52 percent of those surveyed think that life begins at conception and 66 percent believe babies in the womb are people. A solid majority support restrictions on abortion, support for late-term abortion remains extremely rare, and more women than men support 20-week abortion ban laws. (Gallup’s data on historical trends, charting opinion since 1996 shows the nation has moved in a more pro-life direction.)

Despite this, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, issued a statement the other day indicating that she believes there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever–which as I understand it is the de facto view held by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and most every leading Democrat. Which means that the truly radical position–a person should have the right to abort any child at any point for any reasons–is the mainstream position of the Democratic Party. (Mr. Obama, while serving as a state senator in Illinois, opposed a bill that would have restricted “abortions” after an infant is born alive. See here and here.)

This offers Republicans the opportunity to advance a culture of life in a way that is principled and shows genuine compassion and care for the most vulnerable members of the human community.

This debate pits utilitarianism against the belief in the inherent human dignity of every individual. The utilitarian approach is an assertion of the power of the strong over the weak; it therefore treats human beings as means rather than as ends. By contrast, the belief in human dignity is rooted in the Jewish and Christian tradition that regards the protection of innocent lives as one of the primary purposes of a just society. A utilitarian society will be dramatically less humane than a society that honors the principle of human dignity and extends it to those in every season and station in life.

The iconic liberal Hubert Humphrey put things this way: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

These are more than lovely words; they speak directly to the moral duties of the state. It seems to me that Republicans and conservatives, even in the current cultural climate, can make a powerful and resonant argument: Unborn children are at the dawn of life, and they deserve the protection of government. They will provide protection to unborn children, even as those on the left believe it is a sacred right to target them.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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