Matthew Walther wrote something interesting recently in the American Conservative. It was about the division over abortion in the US conservative movement and Republican party.
For most Republican politicians, and I daresay voters, to say nothing of what I take to be the median right-of-center journalist or commentator, abortion is one social ill among many—eminently regrettable, tragic even, almost certainly demanding some degree of restriction. But it is not the be-all end-all; it is something that must be weighed alongside the rights of police officers and payday lenders, the enormity of paying taxes, the horrifying reality of the EPA’s continued existence and so on in assessing the priorities of the so-called conservative movement.
For a small minority, though—exactly how small is something that remains unclear to me—abortion is not simply among the most important issues of our age. It is the overarching political issue, the “burning question,” to borrow a phrase from Pope Pius XI, every bit as much as the rise of Nazism was in the 1930s or chattel slavery in the antebellum United States. It is an issue about which neutrality is unthinkable, and on which it should be impossible to have moderate views.
Walther goes on to draw a contrast between these kinds of conservative. On the one hand are pro-business types who care a lot about limited government and find the whole prospect of actually restricting abortion a bit icky. On the other are social conservatives who are willing to do whatever it takes to end the mass death, including voting for Donald Trump.
I think Walther’s right that there’s a division between people who see abortion as ‘just another issue’ and people who see it as ‘the burning question’. But I think he’s wrong about how this distinction intersects with other ideological ones.
For example, Walther associates the ‘just another issue’ position with US-style establishment neoconservatism (the sort believed by many of the officials of the Bush administration). That combination is certainly common. But I think there’s a more Trumpian, right-wing-populist version of the ‘just another issue’ stance too. Take radio host Ann Coulter’s notorious tweet from 2015:
Coulter wasn’t alone either: I have encountered a variety of people for whom limiting mass immigration seems as or more salient than ending abortion. More common still are people for whom abortion is primarily important as a sign of what they see as a degenerate culture. These people do lament abortion, but in much the same way they lament (say) cancel culture or the spread of OnlyFans. The fact that abortion is killing of the innocent on a grand scale does not seem to be the central relevant fact to them. So it’s not that the right-wing populist care about the pre-born and the establishment conservatives don’t. Rather the ‘burning question’ vs ‘just another issue’ division runs through rather than between different types of right-wing politics.
Nor is it the case that left-wing pro-lifers are automatically more likely to be on the ‘just another issue’ side. Take me. I am (and here I speak firmly for myself and not for my Minimise colleagues) on paper a politically ‘mushy’ sort of pro-lifer. I thought Trump was awful, I’m generally pro-migration, I’m strongly against the death penalty, most of my positions are somewhere on the political left. I favour a common-ground-seeking, dialogue-based approach to the abortion issue.
But I consider myself very firmly on the ‘burning question’ side of Walther’s division. I couldn’t be further from thinking of abortion as just one issue among others: I am often shocked and appalled at how un-seriously even many pro-lifers take the question given what we believe about the moral status of pre-born children. The main reason I favour the conversations-and-common-ground based approach to the issue is because I think it’s likely to be the most effective one, changing the most minds and saving the most lives in the long run. I might be wrong about that of course, but if I am it’s not because I’m underrating the moral importance of abortion.
When I see pro-lifers on the left using their commitment to other important issues to argue against the unique seriousness of abortion I always strongly argue against them. And I’m far from alone: someone like Herb Geraghty of Rehumanise International is about as committed to the consistent life ethic as it gets, and also about as ‘burning question’ as it gets.
For me, the idea of being pro-life but just not caring much about abortion is almost incomprehensible. If pro-lifers are right about the pre-born child, then the 40 to 50 million abortions that happen worldwide each year are a moral horror on a scale unprecedented in world history. It’s almost too large an atrocity to wrap one’s head around: I can more easily imagine being paralysed by despair than indifference. (Not that that’s a luxury that we can afford either).
It’s a good idea to separate out the burning question / just another issue division from others – first and foremost because it’s a more accurate picture of the world.
But I think it’s also of critical practical importance to divorce Walther’s distinction from the question of where a person is on the left-right spectrum, or what they think of Donald Trump. This is because I think every pro-lifer should be more ‘burning question’ and less ‘just another issue’. It would be a shame if the idea got around that taking abortion as seriously as it deserves automatically had to be bundled with other stances that in fact are distinct from it.