If you believe, as I do, that intentionally killing innocent human beings, even in the earliest stages of life, is gravely immoral, you will conclude that abortion involves the wrongful killing of more than a million human beings in the U.S. every year. Other issues—the Iraq war, environmental regulation, tax policy—will seem small in comparison. Given the generally opposing positions of Republicans and Democrats on abortion, you will probably conclude that you should vote Republican this November, even if you prefer Democratic policies on other issues.

But Eduardo Moisés Peñalver thinks you should vote Democratic. He argues that Republicans lie in order to start unjust wars, torture prisoners in order to satisfy their hatreds, intentionally harm the poor in order to benefit the rich, and consciously stoke racial hatreds for partisan advantage. He reaches these implausible conclusions by assuming that, for every policy difference between Republicans and Democrats, the Republican position is so obviously wrong that no reasonable person could support it; hence, Republicans supporting these positions must be doing so for nefarious purposes. Peñalver thus converts honest differences about policy into proof of Republican immorality. But anyone can argue this way. I could say that Democrats are so pro-abortion that no reasonable person could vote for them unless he himself favored abortion—and I could thus conclude that Peñalver wants to murder innocents in the womb because he hates children. This is absurd, of course, and people who reason like this are either desperate to win an argument or else lack the moral imagination to understand views different from their own.

Peñalver also says that, despite appearances to the contrary, Republicans and Democrats don’t really differ on abortion. For anyone who really believes that abortion is the intentional killing of innocent human beings, “George W. Bush’s failure to take extraordinary steps during his six years in office to put an immediate end to the slaughter makes him nearly as culpable as pro-choice politicians." In other words, pro-life Republicans should take all steps necessary to end abortion immediately, and if they don’t, then they are as bad as pro-choice Democrats.

Peñalver here confuses two different moral norms related to the taking of human life. On the one hand, we have the norm against intentionally killing innocent human beings. This norm is absolute, in the sense that it applies always and everywhere, regardless of the circumstances, there being no excuse whatsoever for intentionally killing the innocent. On the other hand, we have another norm requiring us to save the innocent from being killed by others. This norm is not absolute, because our obligation to help others depends on the circumstances, on such things as the means available to us, our relation to those in danger, and our other moral commitments. The victims of genocide in Darfur, for example, are doomed to a violent death, but we do no wrong if we fail to help them because we lack the means to do so or because there are other persons closer to home to whom we owe a superior duty. Our ability to help others is always limited in various ways, and so our obligation to help is limited too—limited, that is, to doing what is reasonably possible in the circumstances.

Hence, to prevent abortions, pro-life voters and politicians must do not anything and everything inconceivable, but only what they reasonably can do under the circumstances, taking account of political realities and our moral obligation to respect the rule of law. Peñalver’s idea—that pro-life politicians should shut down the government in order to get a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion—would obviously not work, and so there is no obligation to try it. In arguing that pro-life politicians should do anything and everything to prevent abortions, Peñalver has inadvertently transferred to the qualified norm about saving those in danger the absolute character of the norm about not intentionally killing the innocent.

Peñalver also goes wrong when he implies that, in deciding between the two parties, we should merely count up lives saved and lives lost as a result of the parties’ respective policies and choose the party whose policies yield the best numbers on a net basis. This might be right if we had to consider only the norm about saving those in danger, but we also have to consider the norm against intentionally killing the innocent. That norm tells us that we may not kill the innocent even to save the lives of a greater number of other people. We may not, for instance, kill one healthy person in order to transplant his organs into ten sick ones and thus save nine lives on net basis. Similarly, if one political party favored increased social spending to save the lives of those in need but also favored public lynchings of members of racial minorities, voting for that party would be wrong, even if the lives saved by the increased spending outnumbered the innocents murdered in the lynchings. One racist murder is not counterbalanced by any number of other lives saved.

Now Republicans generally uphold the norm against intentionally killing the innocent and want our laws to reflect it, but most Democrats are committed to violating it if the innocents are human beings in the earliest stages of life. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, expressed the view of his party when he stated at a NARAL function, “The right to choose [an abortion] is a fundamental right. Neither the government nor any person has a right to infringe upon that freedom.” The Democratic Party thus holds that there is a moral, natural and human right to kill a human being in the womb, a right it wants enshrined forever in our constitutional law. Worse, most Democrats would supply public funding for abortions and for research in which human embryos are intentionally killed, research that could involve additional hundreds of thousands of deaths. Some Democrats even want to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.

Even as to the norm about saving those in danger, Republicans are again clearly preferable to Democrats. To limit the number of abortions, the obvious thing to do is to prohibit abortion, or when that is not politically possible, at least regulate and restrict it. The first legal step towards doing this is to overturn Roe v. Wade. Republicans have so far appointed four justices to the Supreme Court likely to overrule Roe (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito). Since Justice John Paul Stevens is eighty-six years old and some other justices may be in poor health, it’s quite possible that President Bush will soon be able to appoint the fifth justice needed to overrule Roe. With Roe overruled, most Republicans will vote for legislation to regulate abortion by requiring waiting periods, parental consent, and similar measures and even, where possible, to prohibit abortion outright. Republicans have proved their intention to do these things by repeatedly voting for bans on partial-birth abortions. Democrats, of course, have vehemently opposed these measures and will continue to do so.

Peñalver says the way to reduce the number of abortions is to increase social welfare spending, but the effect of such spending on the abortion rate is highly speculative. Some people think additional spending will solve all social ills—except, of course, those they truly find morally outrageous, such as racial discrimination, hate crimes, and cigarette smoking. These they want to prohibit outright, rightly recognizing that we need strong laws and cannot rely on improving the economic condition of the poor in the hope that moral problems will take care of themselves. It’s only when such people are morally ambivalent about the behavior—as with abortion, pornography, and drug use—that they shy away from prohibition or regulation and try to remedy the ills with increased spending alone.

Such is the case here. Peñalver has elsewhere referred to "the (in some sense) human status of the embryo,” implying that such embryos are not really and truly human beings. In short, he doesn’t quite agree that intentionally killing human beings in the earliest stages of life is gravely immoral. He’s entitled to his opinion. But we who think that intentionally killing innocent beings, even in the earliest stages of life, is in fact gravely immoral, will—if we think clearly about things—be voting Republican this November.
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