Proclaiming Emancipation: Following Reagan on Abortion
This year marks the sesquicentennial of both the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The latter is better known than the former, but both steps -- one legislative and immediately effective, the other hortatory and of limited legal impact -- marked turning points where the executive and legislative branches of the federal government took action and set forth the intellectual basis for abolishing the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
The District of Columbia law was adopted by Congress and signed by Lincoln on April 16, 1862, and it marked a springtime of hope for freedom. The law set free some 3,000 slaves in the federal enclave -- men, women and children whose captivity was subject to congressional control. The 150th anniversary of the day is being celebrated with symbolic marches, lectures, and fireworks in the nation's capital.
Later this year, in September, the nation will mark the same anniversary for the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In that most famed of presidential statements, formally issued on January 1, 1863, Lincoln declared the freedom of slaves living in the Southern states should their leaders refuse to end their rebellion.
"[A]ll persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State," Lincoln wrote, "the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." As Union armies moved through the South, and before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery, the Proclamation gave national blessing to the liberty won on the field of battle.
Today, nearly a quarter-century has passed since another act of similar intellectual sweep: Ronald Reagan's 1988 Presidential Proclamation on the sanctity of prenatal human life. By the measurement of elite opinion, there could be no parallel between Reagan's declaration and an act of Congress that, followed by Lincoln's hallowed phrases in the Proclamation, set slavery, that "relic of barbarism," on a path of ultimate extinction in the United States.
But elite opinion is precisely what Reagan's eloquence and common sense on abortion disturbed during his presidency and continues to disturb now. His common sense spoke to the issue time and again when he was asked why he persisted in disputing an edict of the Supreme Court that was, after all, the law of the land. "If you don't know whether a body is alive or dead," Reagan would reply, "you would never bury it." All benefit of the doubt, he argued, should inure to the conviction that life is present and that it should be protected.
In his unprecedented essay, "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation," published in 1983, Reagan described the condition of legal abortion on request in the context of America's best traditions dating from its very founding.
"Our nation," Reagan wrote, "cannot continue down the path of abortion, so radically at odds with our history, our heritage, and our concepts of justice. This sacred legacy, and the well-being and the future of our country, demand that protection of the innocents must be guaranteed and that the personhood of the unborn be declared and defended throughout our land. In legislation introduced at my request in the First Session of the 100th Congress, I have asked the Legislative branch to declare the 'humanity of the unborn child and the compelling interest of the several states to protect the life of each person before birth.' This duty to declare on so fundamental a matter falls to the Executive as well. By this Proclamation I hereby do so."
If that soaring rhetoric seems high-flown and abstract to some ears today, the course of our nation's history since Roe v. Wade tends to confirm its essential validity. The court's Olympian decree of 1973 did not settle the issue of abortion, nor did its equally imperious call in Planned Parenthood v. Casey for "the contending sides of national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution." On the contrary, as the past two years of fevered legislative activity at the state level have again made clear, abortion continues to roil the "conscience of the nation" and to inspire, as no Supreme Court ruling since perhaps Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) has done, an indefatigable resistance.
Yes, polls consistently show that Americans are not ready to legally ban all abortions. But they are willing to ban, in most states, a very high proportion of these procedures based on the stage of the pregnancy, the capacity of the developing child to feel pain, the inequity of sex-selective abortions, and the inadequacy of economic or other "convenience" rationales for abortion. Even defenders of legal abortion say, as every leading Democrat from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama has done, that they want abortion to be "rare." Former President Jimmy Carter went so far last week as to tell radio talk show host Laura Ingraham that he believed that the Democratic Party should abandon its embrace of abortion rights and defend the practice only in cases of rape or when the life of the mother is at stake.
"Rare" is a strong term. Rare-earth elements are sparse and difficult to find. Rare gems are beautiful and costly. "Rare" rainfall in the Eastern Sahara means less than 5 mm per year. Use of this term regarding abortion may be just an allusion to effective birth control for some public figures, but they would not use it at all were it not for the fact that people across the spectrum are distressed by what abortion is: the taking of human life.
Late in his presidency, Reagan was troubled by the fact, as he confided to advisers, that he had not succeeded in protecting the right to life. This fact, which owed more to divisions among pro-life groups than his own inaction, prompted Reagan to issue his Emancipation Proclamation for the unborn. Reagan recalled that in his first term, he had supported a proposed federal bill that would spell out the humanity of the unborn child and the applicability of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to the right to life of that child. He favored both congressional action to give form to the guarantees inherent in that amendment and, if necessary, a new constitutional amendment to accomplish that result.
Reagan realized that his words and actions did not embody a statute but were, instead, a framework for appropriate action by Congress and the states operating in their respective spheres. His proclamation had no force of law, but it remains nonetheless a call to justice. Like the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years prior, it states that no human being has the power to exercise dominion over the life and death of another. And like the federal actions of 1862, there is no doubt that, 150 years on, should our nation be blessed to continue, Americans will be debating the applications of this call to justice, seeking the best way to achieve the guarantees of the 14th Amendment for every human being, regardless of race, sex, age, condition of dependency, or stage of development.
Justice, after all, and not merely the kind of vague unease that makes us wish something awful were rare, is why Americans continue to seek the extinction of abortion from the American landscape. It is a new emancipation that we seek, and that is why abortion remains as powerful an issue as ever in the legislative and political battles of 2012.
Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project. Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.