National Review's Bad Advice for Rubio

The editors of the National Review are advising Marco Rubio to revise his pro-life position to make an exception for rape and incest. They reason that failure to allow such an exception marks him as an extremist and only serves to alienate a public that may be attracted to other aspects of the pro-life platform such as opposition to late-term abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion.

This is their advice to Rubio and other pro-life presidential candidates:

What then should a candidate say if he believes that in an ideal world, unborn children conceived in rape should be protected? Asked about abortion in the case of rape, the first thing that candidate should do is to express sympathy for the woman who was brutalized and put in a terrible position. It would be perfectly honorable for that candidate to say next that restricting abortion in that case is not part of his agenda -- because in no serious sense is it part of any Republican’s agenda; and to say that by the end of his presidency abortion will be just as available in cases of rape as it is today -- because that is true.

Senator Rubio would be well-advised to ignore the second half of this counsel.

To begin with, it is rarely wise to allow political expedience, rather than principle, to determine one’s stance on an ethical question of fundamental importance. If you believe the answer to this question is yes, then have the courage of your convictions to say so. Senator Rubio, reasonably enough, believes we are talking about living human beings; these unborn children are not capital to be traded away for a bump in the polls. If standing up for them is unpopular and makes it harder for him to win, so be it.  

As a practical matter, flip-flopping on this issue would be a catastrophe for Rubio at this point. Why should he introduce a vulnerability into his position that his opponents could use relentlessly against him? Senator Rubio -- an articulate defender of the pro-life position -- would be cut off at the knees every time abortion came up if he were forced to defend a position distinct from what he believes. The interview would immediately gravitate to how he rationalizes an exception he knows he can’t defend.

It also needs to be said that the National Review’s very suggestion that Rubio ought to moderate his stance on abortion is oddly tin-eared. The conservative movement clearly is frustrated with the Republican Party at the moment. Republican politicians seem to constantly be retreating and do not seem to fight hard enough on issues that matter. It is one thing to compromise when you are sitting at the table hashing out the actual legislation and fighting tooth and nail for every last vote. But it is foolish to water down one’s starting position before the fight begins.

Perhaps this is all the National Review had in mind anyway? Rubio should just express his willingness to negotiate and compromise?

But everybody already knows this. As was pointed out in the debate, Senator Rubio has supported and even sponsored legislation that reflects a pro-life position less robust than his own. It should (but apparently doesn’t) go without saying that until Roe is overturned, this will necessarily be true of any pro-life legislation. In a democracy, legislation often results from compromise, rather than logical rigor. That does not mean politicians should stop constructing positions that are logically coherent.

But the worst part of this advice is that it buys into a narrative that nobody -- save the editors of the National Review -- accepts anymore. That is, no one thinks the abortion debate hinges on how pro-lifers handle the “hard cases.” The other side isn't even focusing on these situations anymore. They’ve learned it is a losing strategy to harp on the 1.5% of abortions that are motivated by the mother's having been raped, as well as the 4% that result from health complications for the mother. Not only are the hard cases rare, but pro-choicers realize that by focusing on them, they’ve been tacitly accepting the pro-life assumption that abortion is difficult to justify in the remaining 94.5% of cases.  

“Safe but rare” was not a winning rallying cry for the pro-choice movement, so they gambled on “abortion without apology.” In recent years, the pro-abortion side began perpetuating the idea that abortions were morally unproblematic and that there was no reason for them to be rare or discouraged.

Just two years ago, during the height of the radical feminist counteroffensive to the imaginary “war on women,” Jessica Valenti, a columnist for The Nation, wrote: “I cannot take hearing another pundit insist that only a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s work is providing abortions or that some women need birth control for ‘medical’ reasons. Tiptoeing around the issue is exhausting, and it’s certainly not doing women any favors. It’s time (to) resuscitate the old rallying cry for ‘free abortions on demand without apology.’”

Last year, another columnist from The Nation, Katha Pollitt, offered a full-throated defense of abortion as a social good. This is the same Katha Pollitt who “cringed” when Planned Parenthood’s Director Cecile Richards apologized for the language used by the doctors in the recent Center for Medical Progress videos. Apparently, “no apology” really means no apology. “Pro-abortion” is no longer just an epithet pro-lifers use to describe ‘pro-choicers.’ It is how they self-identify.

In August 2014, Janet Harris, a former communications director of Emily’s List, a political action committee supporting pro-choice politicians, wrote a revealing opinion piece for the Washington Post. Lamenting the “pernicious result” of conceding abortion might be a “difficult decision,” she observes: “It is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a ‘hard choice’ implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being.” Since Ms. Harris prefers unfettered access to abortion on demand over moral reflection on the implications of ending the lives of children still in the womb, she concludes (as per the title of her piece) that we should all agree to “Stop calling abortion a ‘difficult decision.’”

All this now looks like a colossal overreach. The Center for Medical Progress is helping large numbers of people see how brutal abortion is, and how human its victims are. The fact that the pro-abortion movement would actively discourage moral reflection seems downright sinister. The pro-life side should be highlighting the extremism of their opponents, rather than defensively concocting rhetorical responses to arguments no one is making.

The pro-choice movement got one thing right. They understood that when you start apologizing for your position, people get suspicious. Pro-lifers have the moral high ground on abortion. They would be well-advised to promote their views with clarity, consistency, and confidence. If they do that, they will win. 

The editors of the National Review are advising Marco Rubio to revise his pro-life position to make an exception for rape and incest. They reason that failure to allow such an exception marks him as an extremist and only serves to alienate a public that may be attracted to other aspects of the pro-life platform such as opposition to late-term abortion and taxpayer funding of abortion.

This is their advice to Rubio and other pro-life presidential candidates:

What then should a candidate say if he believes that in an ideal world, unborn children conceived in rape should be protected? Asked about abortion in the case of rape, the first thing that candidate should do is to express sympathy for the woman who was brutalized and put in a terrible position. It would be perfectly honorable for that candidate to say next that restricting abortion in that case is not part of his agenda -- because in no serious sense is it part of any Republican’s agenda; and to say that by the end of his presidency abortion will be just as available in cases of rape as it is today -- because that is true.

Senator Rubio would be well-advised to ignore the second half of this counsel.

To begin with, it is rarely wise to allow political expedience, rather than principle, to determine one’s stance on an ethical question of fundamental importance. If you believe the answer to this question is yes, then have the courage of your convictions to say so. Senator Rubio, reasonably enough, believes we are talking about living human beings; these unborn children are not capital to be traded away for a bump in the polls. If standing up for them is unpopular and makes it harder for him to win, so be it.  

As a practical matter, flip-flopping on this issue would be a catastrophe for Rubio at this point. Why should he introduce a vulnerability into his position that his opponents could use relentlessly against him? Senator Rubio -- an articulate defender of the pro-life position -- would be cut off at the knees every time abortion came up if he were forced to defend a position distinct from what he believes. The interview would immediately gravitate to how he rationalizes an exception he knows he can’t defend.

It also needs to be said that the National Review’s very suggestion that Rubio ought to moderate his stance on abortion is oddly tin-eared. The conservative movement clearly is frustrated with the Republican Party at the moment. Republican politicians seem to constantly be retreating and do not seem to fight hard enough on issues that matter. It is one thing to compromise when you are sitting at the table hashing out the actual legislation and fighting tooth and nail for every last vote. But it is foolish to water down one’s starting position before the fight begins.

Perhaps this is all the National Review had in mind anyway? Rubio should just express his willingness to negotiate and compromise?

But everybody already knows this. As was pointed out in the debate, Senator Rubio has supported and even sponsored legislation that reflects a pro-life position less robust than his own. It should (but apparently doesn’t) go without saying that until Roe is overturned, this will necessarily be true of any pro-life legislation. In a democracy, legislation often results from compromise, rather than logical rigor. That does not mean politicians should stop constructing positions that are logically coherent.

But the worst part of this advice is that it buys into a narrative that nobody -- save the editors of the National Review -- accepts anymore. That is, no one thinks the abortion debate hinges on how pro-lifers handle the “hard cases.” The other side isn't even focusing on these situations anymore. They’ve learned it is a losing strategy to harp on the 1.5% of abortions that are motivated by the mother's having been raped, as well as the 4% that result from health complications for the mother. Not only are the hard cases rare, but pro-choicers realize that by focusing on them, they’ve been tacitly accepting the pro-life assumption that abortion is difficult to justify in the remaining 94.5% of cases.  

“Safe but rare” was not a winning rallying cry for the pro-choice movement, so they gambled on “abortion without apology.” In recent years, the pro-abortion side began perpetuating the idea that abortions were morally unproblematic and that there was no reason for them to be rare or discouraged.

Just two years ago, during the height of the radical feminist counteroffensive to the imaginary “war on women,” Jessica Valenti, a columnist for The Nation, wrote: “I cannot take hearing another pundit insist that only a small percentage of Planned Parenthood’s work is providing abortions or that some women need birth control for ‘medical’ reasons. Tiptoeing around the issue is exhausting, and it’s certainly not doing women any favors. It’s time (to) resuscitate the old rallying cry for ‘free abortions on demand without apology.’”

Last year, another columnist from The Nation, Katha Pollitt, offered a full-throated defense of abortion as a social good. This is the same Katha Pollitt who “cringed” when Planned Parenthood’s Director Cecile Richards apologized for the language used by the doctors in the recent Center for Medical Progress videos. Apparently, “no apology” really means no apology. “Pro-abortion” is no longer just an epithet pro-lifers use to describe ‘pro-choicers.’ It is how they self-identify.

In August 2014, Janet Harris, a former communications director of Emily’s List, a political action committee supporting pro-choice politicians, wrote a revealing opinion piece for the Washington Post. Lamenting the “pernicious result” of conceding abortion might be a “difficult decision,” she observes: “It is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a ‘hard choice’ implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being.” Since Ms. Harris prefers unfettered access to abortion on demand over moral reflection on the implications of ending the lives of children still in the womb, she concludes (as per the title of her piece) that we should all agree to “Stop calling abortion a ‘difficult decision.’”

All this now looks like a colossal overreach. The Center for Medical Progress is helping large numbers of people see how brutal abortion is, and how human its victims are. The fact that the pro-abortion movement would actively discourage moral reflection seems downright sinister. The pro-life side should be highlighting the extremism of their opponents, rather than defensively concocting rhetorical responses to arguments no one is making.

The pro-choice movement got one thing right. They understood that when you start apologizing for your position, people get suspicious. Pro-lifers have the moral high ground on abortion. They would be well-advised to promote their views with clarity, consistency, and confidence. If they do that, they will win.