A fellow senator stopped Joe Biden in the hallway and asked, “What’s your position?” It was the early 1970s, and Biden was headed to the Senate to cast his first vote on abortion.
In his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Biden says he replied,
Well, my position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my view—on something I accept as a matter of faith—on the rest of society.
Like many Americans, Biden is conflicted about abortion and believes a compromise can be reached by claiming to be “personally opposed” to abortion while also opposing all attempts to restrict or prohibit the procedure.
When confronted by this view, how should those of us who are consistently pro-life respond?
The first step is to reframe the hoary objection that to oppose abortion is to “impose my view…on the rest of society.” In discussions about morality and public policy, we need never concede the use of “impose.” After all, unless we are one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, none of us has the power to “impose” our views on society.
Instead, as legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon says, “When people advance their moral viewpoints in the public square, they are not imposing anything on anyone. They are proposing. That’s what citizens do in a democracy—we propose, we give reasons, we vote.”
Ask whether the person who is “personally opposed” thinks you should be prohibited from trying to propose restrictions on abortion. If they’re truly tolerant, they’ll say you have that right not only to propose such views in the public square but also to seek changes in the law through the democratic process. If they’re unwilling to be tolerate of views that do not align with their own, ask them why they feel comfortable “imposing” their particular view on pro-lifers.
Why do they believe they alone should be able to enforce their views on others?
Next, ask why someone personally opposes abortion. Too often, the lack of clarification on this point leads to confusion.
We pro-lifers tend to assume there is something inherently flawed with the “personally opposed” framing. But that’s not necessarily the case. On many issues the “personally opposed, but…” can be a legitimate position, since not everything we personally oppose should be prohibited in the public square.
For instance, some things are mere matters of taste: I am personally opposed to men wearing skinny jeans or plaid bellbottoms. I am not, however, in favor of a law that restricts the fashion choices of either hipsters or hippies.
Similarly, we may be opposed to particular behaviors—even consider them immoral and destructive—and yet not favor banning them completely. Our religious beliefs or personal experiences, for example, may cause us to be opposed to the use of alcohol. We may feel so strongly about the dangers of alcohol that we would prefer everyone refrain from drinking beer and liquor. Yet, it would still not be inconsistent if we admitted that, while we wish alcohol did not exist, we would not be inclined to propose a legal ban on its consumption.
If we can personally oppose skinny jeans and alcohol and yet not want to ban hipsters and their microbrews, why can’t we take the same position on abortion? What makes abortion different?
Most of us would agree that abortion is not merely a matter of taste. When people say they “personally oppose” abortion, they do not ordinarily mean that they think abortion is morally neutral, like choosing coffee over tea, and they just prefer not getting an abortion to having one.
No, for most people, their personal opposition is rooted in the belief that abortion violates an established moral norm. But, if we would propose a ban on abortion and not other things we personally oppose, there must be a compelling reason.
That reason is justice.
We may believe drinking alcohol is immoral and yet not consider it unjust. In contrast, an abortion is an action that always leads to a grave injustice: the ending of an innocent human life.
We should therefore ask the “personally opposed” whether they believe it is unjust to take the life of an innocent human being.
If they agree it is, then their “personally opposed” position is even more intellectually disreputable than the standard pro-abortion position. Those abortion advocates who favor the legalization of abortion because they think destroying a fetus is a morally neutral act are supporting injustice because they are ignorant or misguided. Their willful ignorance doesn’t excuse them, of course, but it is at least consistent with their moral beliefs. The same cannot be said for someone who recognizes that abortion kills a human being and yet believes that the law should not be used to rectify that injustice.
To be “personally opposed” to an injustice and yet refuse to see justice done is, at best, a form of cowardice. At worst, it is a form of apathy that acknowledges evil and then, through silence or conformity, permits the killing of the innocent to continue.
That’s why the “personally opposed, but…” stance is not the “middle of the road” position on abortion. It’s a form of abortion extremism—and one that all pro-lifers should personally oppose.
Joe Carter is a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator.