The Conservative Case for Abortion

Edited by Estella Johnson

In “The Conservative Case for Abortion” (The New Republic, August 21/28), Jerry Z. Muller discusses a third view of abortion that is neither “right to choose” nor “right-to-life” [sic]. Muller’s third position is “essentially conservative and pro-family,” yet favors abortion as “the right choice to promote healthy family life under certain circumstances.”

Muller leans heavily on the “middle class family values” of stability and responsibility-values that conservatives cherish. He says these values include the belief that bearing and rearing children is a “voluntary vocation.” This includes deciding when and how many children (usually a low number) are to be born. It seeks to “increase the chances of successfully socializing and educating children in order to help them find fulfilling work and spiritual lives.”

Given these bedrock conservative values, Muller has harsh criticisms of the right-to-life movement, which he says undermines efforts to strengthen purposeful families by requiring “massive government intrusion into the most intimate of realms” and removes childbearing decisions from those who are to raise them.

He says the right-to-lifers’ “strategic aim is to extend state power to preserve and protect every fetus,” regardless of its condition and the will of its parents, and that the success of the right-to-life position would lead to more children born into socially dysfunctional settings. Muller argues that giving birth isn’t always the right choice, and “under some conditions, choosing to give birth may be socially dysfunctional, morally irresponsible, or even cruel.”

The conservative view of the family is threatened by the right-to-life movement, according to Muller. And the prime obstacle to the right-to-life position, Muller says, is not feminism, but conservative middle-class parents who would advise their teenage daughter to have an abortion rather than force a marriage or give a child up for adoption.

Anti-abortion movement caused rise in out-of-wedlock births

Muller holds the anti-abortion movement responsible for the rise in out-of-wedlock births over the past 15 years, from 18.4 percent to 30.1 percent. He points to the disturbing results of the strategy of “chipping away” at abortion rights to “save as many babies as possible.” The major impact has been in passing legislation affecting the poor, such as Medicaid recipients seeking abortions. Muller says, “The success of the [anti-abortion] movement is now measured in the lives of poor children born out-of-wedlock.”

He explains that most abortions occur to prevent out-of wedlock births: only 271,000 of 1.5 million abortions in 1991 were performed on married women. He cites statistics showing that among married women, there were eight abortions for every 90 births; among unmarried women, there were 48 abortions for every 45 births. “All else being equal, then, eliminating the possibility of abortion would hike the number of out-of-wedlock births from its already disastrous level of 30 percent to 49 percent.” He says the trend to out-of-wedlock births rather than abortion “marks a partial victory for the [anti-abortion] movement” (but a loss for the kind of society conservatives want.)

Attacking the right-to-life effort to ban late-term abortions, Muller again calls the effect “tragic.” He says that late-term abortions are rare, and frequently occur after the parents have learned of a serious birth defect. Yet the anti-abortion movement seeks to “save” these fetuses. He says a bill before Congress that tries to force women to give birth to these “babies”, should be dubbed “The Cruelty to Families Act.”

Muller gives voice to the views of Americans who are ambivalent about abortion but opposed to government control of their families. They validate the slogan, “Pro-choice is pro-family.”