As we look back upon the life and achievements of Ronald Reagan this week, we should remember that Reagan was strongly pro-life. In fact, he wrote a book on the subject in 1983, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation. In that book, Reagan maintained that “we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide. My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning.”
It’s important to understand the powerful connection between life and liberty which President Reagan described. The pro-choice argument is commonly presented as resistance to tyranny, with the pro-life side acting against liberty by foreclosing “a woman’s right to choose.” Here Reagan makes the opposite case: that liberty cannot endure in the absence of a transcendent respect for life. He is making a far deeper point than the obvious truth that dead people cannot exercise their liberties. Dead societies don’t handle liberty very well, either.
Transcendence is a beautiful concept. It lies at the heart of a healthy relationship between free people and their government. Essential liberties are transcendent, surpassing any demand from fellow citizens… even when the State acts on their behalf. A “right” that can be infringed according to the designs of the State, or the demands of a majority, is not a right at all, but an indulgence.
A “right” is also not a prize to be won during a political contest. For law-abiding citizens, its defense should not require skilled advocates in a court of law, or public opinion, with forfeiture the consequence of poor representation. The power of the State breaks upon the eternal rock of the people’s absolute rights.
Few rights can enjoy such an absolute status, or the very concept of civil order would become unworkable… but if no right is absolute, the power of the State has no limit. There must be a basic building block of liberty: a right that cannot be compromised or subdivided, a border that no amount of political support can empower the government to breach.
That border is drawn through an enduring respect for the unborn, who are perfectly innocent, and perfectly helpless. The unborn have no powers of persuasion, or compulsion. They have no voice to argue for their right to exist. They can’t try to plea bargain their way out of a death sentence. They can’t offer their votes to a politician, in exchange for the protection of the State. They can’t sue for a redress of grievances. The unborn are completely subject to the will of the living.
There’s an old saying that character is what you do when nobody is watching. We can judge the character of our society by how it respects the rights of those who cannot complain about their treatment. The right to life is the only right that matters to an unborn child. Taking it away is the easiest thing in the world, for the child has absolutely no ability to defend itself. If it can be taken away, except in the extremely rare case where the mother’s life also hangs in the balance, then all rights are negotiable. All liberty must be won through political competition, or defended in the courtroom. In a society where the defenseless can be robbed of the only treasure that matters to them, all valuables must be kept under lock and key.
This assessment might be different if pregnancy was compulsory, or involuntary, but it is neither. The life growing within every mother is the consequence of an action. The child itself has taken no actions yet, and carries no responsibility for its own existence. It can’t be judged guilty of any crime, and thus deprived of its only meaningful right through due process. Liberty can only exist in concert with responsibility – if you own your life, then you are also responsible for how it is used. It’s no coincidence that liberty withers beneath a State that regards its citizens as children.
That is why respect for the life of the unborn is a powerful foundation for liberty, not an exercise of tyranny. All sorts of arguments can be made for the “right to choose” abortion. None of them would sound very persuasive to the person who loses their one and only right in the transaction. We shouldn’t be surprised to find this principle extending through every level of our society, as citizens hear all sorts of arguments about how none of their rights are absolute, either.
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