Why did Charles Murray call abortion ‘justifiable’ homicide? We asked him.
I should start by admitting that I’ve been a fan of social scientist Charles Murray for a long time – and not only for the compelling reason that I agree with many of his conclusions. A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he is best known for his controversial books “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve” (his newest is Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 ) — but all of them are excellent.
Murray caused somewhat of a ruckus at CPAC last week, not only advocating that Republicans embrace gay marriage (not entirely surprising), but for dropping this provocative statement about abortion on the crowd: “It’s a murder—it’s a homicide—but sometimes homicide is justified.”
Here’s how the New Yorker summed up his speech:
The disquiet grew further as Murray suggested that abortion, too, was an issue better left, for the most part, to “moral suasion” rather than criminalization. Personally, he said, he regarded abortion as a “grave” moral issue, and favored some restrictions. He said he’d like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and abortions regulated at the state level. But, he said, “the extent to which they can be legislated remains in question.” Rather than absolutely banning abortion, as many conservatives in the room clearly preferred, Murray quoted his friend Karl Hess, a Goldwater speechwriter turned “charming anarchist,” on the idea that abortions should be thought of as homicides—with the caveat that, “It’s a murder—it’s a homicide—but sometimes homicide is justified.” Murray said that he’d long thought that Hess was too harsh, but now thought that his language was right.
And the New Yorker, you may not be shocked to learn, didn’t exactly provide this statement with the context it deserved. What did he mean?
Karl Hess, as Murray explains it, was peculiar character, a major figure in 1970s radical political thought. Once a Goldwater speechwriter, Hess became a “back to the land” movement enthusiast, ended up in West Virginia, refused to pay his taxes and attempted to barter — rather than use currency — to survive. (It didn’t work out.)
“He was a very penetrating thinker,” Murray says. “When we were talking about abortion once … he said, ‘Well if you leave the pregnancy alone the fetus won’t become a bunny rabbit. It will be a person. So an abortion is a homicide and you can’t blink at that sort of thing. But sometimes it’s a justifiable homicide.”
Murray initially recoiled from the phrase, but “the more I thought about it the more it captures my own view of abortion; that it is homicide. Am I against in all instances? No. Why? Sometimes it can be justified. The phrase for me maintains the gravity of the moral question but puts the great moral issue into a proper perspective.”
Murray, in fact, tells me he hasn’t changed his position on abortion in 30 years. “I really consider abortion a hugely grave step that you move forward on with the greatest reluctance for the most compelling reason. But I always believed that it was beyond the competence of government to legislate those issues.”
To me this sounds like someone trying to reconcile libertarianism with a socially conservative position. For context, here is Murray in an interview with the Christian Post in 2011:
CP: You are a libertarian. So, you don’t agree with the Christian Right on some issues like abortion, same sex marriage …
Murray: I don’t think there is a libertarian position on abortion. Maybe if you took a poll of libertarians, it might be that a majority would be pro-choice, but, the libertarian position is to protect the rights of individuals against the use of force and fraud. Well, a libertarian who says that life begins at conception is going to be an absolutely ardent anti-abortion person because he is preventing the use of lethal force against a living person. So, there is no natural libertarian position.
Despite there not being a natural libertarian position, it seems to me that Murray’s found one that works for him: Persuasion rather than coercion. When I ask him about this, Murray says that “One of the reasons abortion is so difficult for people is that there is night and day in some instance, but there is twilight in others. The devil is in the details of the twilight.”
Murray, for instance, sees the morning after pill as completely acceptable, even though Catholics do not agree, but a third-trimester abortion is unacceptable in almost every instance. Night and day. The easiest , says Murray, are cases in which the health of mother is in question. But Murray is also sympathetic in instances when the fetus has serious health problems — brain stem problems “not Down’s Syndrome” but something that “constitutes severe damage.” Here again, he notes, the age-old problem arises: who exactly makes these calls?
As a practical concern, Murray believes the political problem (after stressing that he’s not an expert on these sorts of things) is the inflexible position across-the-board on abortion — and on gay marriage. I am sympathetic (on gay marriage), but rarely do I hear a cost-benefit analysis when Republicans discuss these shifts. Has Murray thought about all the votes lost when Republicans change course?
Of course he has. “A week before the [CPAC] speech, I was at an off-the-record event and a well-known political commentator heard me make similar remarks,” Murray says. “He himself is pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage. He told me, ‘Politically you are wrong. Republicans will suffer in all fifty states. They will alienate social conservatives.”
Murray says he’s unconvinced by this argument. He turns to his own four children, people who have an “affection and allegiance “ for the ideas of the Founders — they’re not “raging lefties” – who wouldn’t even entertain the idea of voting for Mitt Romney.
“What I am saying is that there is a large body of people who philosophically and temperamentally are not Democrats; they are wide open to the kinds of arguments I made,” he goes on. “They are alienated because of these issues. Take those issues away from the Republican Party, stand foursquare behind free enterprise and deregulation and lower taxes, and you’ll find that a lot of people would want to vote for that party.”
Sounds like we’re going to find out if this proposition is true soon enough.