Abortion and Public Discourse:
A Response to James V. Bachman
Richard John Neuhaus

(Editor’s note: Last March, The Cresset published James V. Bachman’s “Of Pluralism, Truth, and Abortion: A Constructive Role for Skepticism in Public Discourse.” In that essay, Pastor Bachman took issue with certain arguments put forward by Pastor Neuhaus. Herewith Pastor Neuhaus’ rejoinder.)

I am grateful for Pastor Bachman’s analysis of the ongoing abortion debate and of my efforts to contribute to that debate. I agree entirely with his statement that “What is wanted is a way to return careful, public reasoning to the public sphere, even and precisely where disagreement persists.” And it appears we do not substantively disagree on what public policy should be with respect to abortion. He gives that question parenthetical mention in one sentence (literally within parentheses) but it is a sentence I can readily affirm: “In a debate about relative risks I would initially suspect that, given our ignorance, it is preferable to risk prohibition of abortions of convenience than to risk free choice.”

But the gravamen of Bachman’s extensive essay is not what abortion policy should be but how we should conduct the debate about what abortion policy should be. Before turning to the heart of his argument, however, at least two errors of fact should be noted. They are errors of fact that may indeed, upon closer examination, touch upon the heart of his argument.

The first error is Bachman’s repeated assertion that Roe v. Wade permits “first trimester abortions.” Roe v. Wade removes legal protection from the unborn up until the moment of birth. No reason for abortion can be required before “viability.” In the final months before birth, a threat to the woman’s health may be a prerequisite for obtaining an abortion, but a threat to health is defined very broadly indeed. So, while there are relatively few third trimester abortions, they are certainly permitted and are obtained when they are wanted and doctors are willing to do them. (Individual justices and the Court have subsequently acknowledged the arbitrariness and disutility of the “trimester” as a concept.)

This question of fact is important because it bears strongly upon what Bachman calls the “risks” involved in policy options. Today the theory and practice justified by Roe v. Wade are, quite logically and routinely, invoked to justify infanticide and euthanasia. As is now very widely recognized, there is nothing in the reasoning of Roe v. Wade that limits the permissions it grants to the first trimester or, for that matter, to the unborn.

The second error also has to do with Roe v. Wade and relates to both a reading of historical circumstance and of the nature of public moral discourse. Bachman repeatedly asserts that the debate over abortion policy had reached a political deadlock and moral impasse, and that this was the unpromising situation to which the Court had to address itself. I respectfully suggest that this depiction is contrary to fact.

As an active participant in the “abortion liberalization” debate of the 1960s that was underway in New York and other states, I can assure Pr. Bachman that democratic political discourse regarding abortion was vibrant and tractable, if not always terribly elevated. Far from having run its course, the debate had hardly gotten underway before the Court peremptorily removed it from the “public reasoning in the public square” that Bachman and I both favor.

It is a matter of record that the pro-liberalization forces were stunned—even if delightedly stunned—by the sweeping nature of the Court’s 1973 decision. As the great constitutional scholar John T. Noonan has observed, the Court did not liberalize abortion law, it abolished abortion law—a step unprecedented in the history of western jurisprudence. It is also no secret that many who favored “liberalized abortion” at the time have had second thoughts about the “victory” handed them by the Court. They wanted abortions to be available in “extreme circumstances.” They did not envision 1.5 million abortions per year and the almost 20 million unborn lives terminated since Roe v. Wade.

The essential point, however, is that the impasse in democratic discourse described by Bachman was not the situation addressed by the Court; it is the situation created by the Court. And the impasse now is not in democratic discourse with respect to abortion; it is an impasse—one hopes a temporary impasse—in resolving the conflict between the imperial judiciary and the democratic political process. This question has everything to do with Bachman’s reading of the possibilities and limits of public reason and persuasion.

There is a second part to what I have described as Bachman’s second error. Perhaps this second part is more in the nature of an attendant question. Bachman writes that the Court was correct in saying that, with respect to when life begins, “when those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

But then Bachman acknowledges that the Court did in fact give an answer, and it was a “reductionist” answer of which he disapproves. Had he a better reading of the history of the debate (see above), Bachman might have concluded that, in the absence of a “consensus” either among the public or among specialists, it would have been the better part of wisdom for the Court not to decide the question as it did, perhaps not to decide the question at all. Not even the forces that brought the case were asking the Court to abolish abortion law.

Even more seriously, Bachman (borrowing the phrase from John Rawls) says the Court respected the “veil of ignorance” which had “descended upon contemporary public debate about abortion.” With the Court, Bachman thinks evidence of such a veil of ignorance is the absence of “consensus” among relevant experts. On many questions of consequence, however, experts are “unable to arrive at any consensus.” Are all such questions therefore to be removed from public discourse and decision? And where would that leave the theory and practice of a system of representative democracy such as we claim to have? Bachman says the argument he is making about the abortion debate applies more generally to other debates over public policy. If he really does agree with the hapless piece of reasoning that he cites from Roe v. Wade, it is to be feared that his complaint is with democratic polity itself.

So far I have suggested that Bachman’s admirable intention is marred by two errors, the second of which raises the several questions mentioned. The constructive part of Bachman’s effort is in the proposal that there are four distinct moral modes, so to speak, in engaging public policy debate, and the abortion debate in particular. There is the moral skeptic (which is how he identifies himself), there is the moral absolutist (apparently proponents of natural law and universal reason belong here), there is the moral relativist (he says the present writer belongs here, when he is not being an absolutist), and then the moral reductionist (who, properly in my judgment, gets short shrift).

The way that Bachman sets up his four categories is intriguing, even if so confusing as to raise the question as to whether they are fundamentally confused. There is also a piquant touch in that Bachmn wickedly mixes up the conventional categories for thinking about moral actors in the public arena. For instance, the Jerry Fal-well types, who are ever railing against relativism, end up as relativists all in Bachman’s scheme of things.

But we should step back a moment and get a firmer fix on Bachman’s four moral modes. The “skeptic” thinks there is a true answer to the question, but also thinks we probably don’t have that true answer. (The question in question would seem to be the question about the beginning of human life, although this becomes ambiguous as the essay proceeds.) The “absolutist” says there is a true answer and all human beings are capable of giving it. The “relativist” says there are several truths in play, and works to make sure that his truth prevails. The “reductionist” claims that all talk about moral truth is no more than a smokescreen for something else, usually self-interest.

So there are Pr. Bachman’s four types. The skeptic is the good guy, the absolutist may be well intended but is stubbornly wrongheaded, the relativist may be sincere but tends to be slippery and manipulative. As for the reductionist, enough said.

“An absolutist would argue that there is one true account about whether abortion in the first trimester is right or not and that this truth can be publicly determined and shared,” Bachman writes. What is meant by “right or not” is not explained. Presumably, it is not “right” if it is the taking of an innocent human life. As an exmple of absolutism, Bachman cites my citation of James Burtchaell of Notre Dame. Burtchaell argues that Christian “wisdom” with respect to abortion is publicly accessible. That is, properly argued, it will be convincing to reasonable people who are not Christians. In this respect, Burtchaell embraces a natural law position that is deeply compatible with a Lutheran understanding of natural reason, civic righteousness, or orders of preservation.

It does seem a bit mischievous of Bachman to dub this the “absolutist” position, considering the pejorative connotation of “absolutism” in our culture. The position represented by Burtchaell is in fact the single most venerable tradition of moral reasoning in western civilization, threading its way from Aristotle through Paul, Augustine, Maimonides, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and up to a good many religious and secular thinkers today who persist in believing that moral discourse is a human possibility.

In any event, while grudgingly admiring the “absolutist,” Bachman thinks his is a lost cause and he should therefore adopt the “skeptic” mode in public discourse. Bachman asks in italics, “What public stance should a rational person take when he recognizes that his private convictions cannot command rational agreement in public discourse?” Bachman’s answer is that he should take a “skeptic” stance.

But Bachman’s question is filled with difficulties. The whole point of the argument advanced by people such as Burtchaell is that theirs is not a “private” conviction. In addition: What constitutes “rational agreement in public discourse”? Unanimous agreement? Majority agreement? Consensus? Are we talking about agreement in public opinion or among significant participants in the discourse? And how would the proponent of reasonable public moral discourse determine that his argument “cannot” command agreement?

With respect to the debate over abortion policy, one might suggest that the measure of agreement required is a politically effective convergence of moral judgments and interests strong enough to secure an accommodation that, while entirely satisfactory to few, will be compatible with the values of a democratic and pluralistic society. Contra Bachman’s “cannot,” there is every reason to believe such an agreement could be achieved, absent the Court’s preemption of democratic deliberation. There is also every reason to believe that those who make the kind of argument which Bachman describes as “absolutist” can contribute, as they indeed have contributed, to achieving such agreement.

The actor whom Bachman describes as the “absolutist” might better be called a moral philosopher. In the abortion debate he attempts to make the public case for what he believes to be the truth (not simply “his truth”). In this sense he is no different from the “skeptic” Pr. Bachman, who is, after all, attempting to make the case for the truth of what we know, or do not know, about the truth. As to whether the moral philosopher can in fact convince others, the debate isn’t over until it is over. (And the debate over the questions raised by abortion will not, God willing, be over in our lifetime.) In that debate the role of the “relativist” is as troubling as Bachman says.

Here too, however, there is considerable confusion in Bachman’s description of the “relativist” category. The relativist allows that there are a number of truths in contention and is only concerned that his truth prevail in public policy. He “will not waste his effort trying to reason with his opponents” but will use “all the tools of persuasion” to carry the day politically. Bachman says the relativist will, for strategic reasons, allow that conflicting positions are “falsehood free.” But that seems exceedingly improbable, since anyone who is trying to persuade people of his position is not likely to allow that opposing positions are free of falsehood.

In fact those whom Bachman calls “relativists” do not make that allowance at all. Bachman’s relativists are more readily recognized as absolutists, in the pejorative sense of the latter term. They reject the responsibilities of public reason and persuasion (persuasion being a perfectly respectable term, despite Bachman’s peculiar way of using it) because their “truth” is essentially derived from private sources. For the fundamentalist “prolifer,” that truth is derived from divine revelation which is not subject to public reason. For many “prochoice” proponents, that truth is coterminous with individual convenience or fulfillment and protected by the dogma of privacy. By declining the obligation of genuinely public discourse, both of these absolutists (whom Bachman unhelpfully calls relativists) do indeed, as Bachman writes, undermine “the virtues of democratic pluralism” and threaten “a return to the tyranny of the majority.”

One of the central arguments of my The Naked Public Square, which Bachman cites, is precisely the danger posed by this privatization of moral discourse. I contend there and elsewhere that questions of great moral moment should not be decided by the counting of noses but by the weighing of arguments. If Bachman thinks we disagree on that, he has seriously misunderstood my argument. Of course in democratic decision-making with respect to policy, it does at some point come down to counting the noses of those persuaded by the arguments. Democracy is a very messy and inelegant process, and the danger of raw majoritarianism is very real.

In the case of abortion, however, I think the alternative danger of elite hostility to democratic discourse and decision is more real and, in fact, has temporarily triumphed. (I mean by “elite” what some have termed the new knowledge class, as embodied in, for example, the judiciary, the prestige media, and dominant institutions of higher education. Survey research over the years is fairly consistent in indicating that about 20 per cent of the population would outlaw all abortions, somewhat under 20 per cent favors the policy now established by Roe v. Wade, and the rest believe the unborn should be legally protected, with abortion allowed in relatively rare “extreme cases.”)

With Bachman, I insist that arguments for public policy should be genuinely public arguments. But arguments do from time to time issue in policy decisions which, if they are to be democratically legitimate, must be supported by a widespread sentiment that is not to be confused with a “tyranny” of the majority. And this, of course, is true of all law, not simply law relative to abortion.

I have suggested, then, that Bachman’s “absolutist” is in fact a publicly engaged moral philosopher and his “relativist” is in fact an absolutist who makes public moral discourse very difficult. I pass over his third category, that of the “reductionist,” since it seems to me an essentially accurate description of one kind of actor in the current debate. However, his preferred category of the “skeptic” is, I am afraid, not very helpful either. It turns out that his skeptic is not very skeptical at all. His skeptic in fact knows a great deal about the truth.

Consider, for example, Bachman’s proposal for recasting the abortion debate in terms of risks. What, he asks, are the consequences if public policy is based on the hypothesis that abortion is wrong or on the hypothesis that abortion is not wrong? If abortion is not wrong but is prohibited, there is a serious infringement of freedom and attendant individual suffering. If abortion is wrong but permitted, millions of innocent human beings are slaughtered. As indicated by his parenthetical remark mentioned earlier, the un-skeptical Pr. Bachman knows perfectly well that it is wrong to slaughter innocent human beings.

Bachman’s proposal for recasting the abortion debate in terms of risk is also ingenuous (not, please note, disingenuous). For two decades innumerable prolife advocates have been urging their opponents to entertain the “what if question. For the sake of argument, what might be called a postulate of ignorance is routinely stipulated with respect to whether the unborn are human beings with a claim upon societal protection. The prochoice advocates just as routinely refuse to take the bait. Knowing full well that the calculus of consequences is devastating to their position, they, as Bachman notes at one point, promptly and understandably change the subject. The unskeptical Pr. Bachman knows that this is an evasion of truth and consequences.

I also have no doubt that he knows that the abortion debate is not only about the moral status of the unborn but drives to the heart of what we mean by political and moral community. The question posed is: Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility and provide legal protection? The inevitable next question is: By what criteria do we exclude one class of what is undeniably human life, in this case the unborn, without by the same criteria excluding others whom we do not intend to exclude?

Pr. Bachman does himself a disservice. By insisting upon the truths at stake in the abortion debate, he discloses that he is no skeptic at all. What he unfortunately calls skepticism, it seems to me, is a measure of modesty about what we can claim to know for sure and a devotion to civil discourse in the public square. As attractive as they may initially appear to be, three of Bachman’s four categories do not stand up under closer examination. His “absolutist” is a publicly engaged moral philosopher, his “relativist” is an absolutist who is indifferent to the protocols of public discourse, and his “skeptic” is an intelligently modest practitioner of civic virtue. However, were it simply a matter of addressing conceptual confusions or of correcting Pr. Bachman’s misunderstanding of my position, his essay would not warrant this extended response. But the essay may have the unfortunate consequence of throwing cold water on vigorous engagement in the abortion debate.

Bachman’s conclusion is that people “should join the skeptic in arguing that there is genuine truth and in fiercely opposing those who seek to crusade in its name.” Bachman is very unskeptical in knowing that there is genuine truth and in knowing the truth about what people should do about it. Also, the call to “fiercely” oppose those who would crusade sounds very much like a call to crusade. But if by “crusade” he means impassioned warfare unchecked by reason and civility, then by all means let us not have a crusade. On the other hand, as Bachman seems not to appreciate, democracy is frequently a raucous project.

Some people, accepting Bachman’s invitation to calculate the comparative risks, will think it morally intolable that it may be that in the United States of America approximately four thousand babies are killed each day. Others, on the basis of reasoning that is genuinely public in nature, have concluded that there is no “may be” about it. In either case, these people are likely to get a good deal more worked up about the situation than Pr. Bachman appears to be. Many of them may determine to try and do something about it. Pr. Bachman might call it a crusade. But it is simply the way that people in a democratic society attempt to, in his words, “return careful, public reasoning to the public sphere, even and precisely where disagreement persists.”  

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