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Pro-Life Principles I: RU-486

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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Recently I voted in the South Carolina Republican primaries. The well-populated race for governor resulted in a runoff between two candidates, neither of whom were my first choice. As I lack time to do much in the way of political research, my wife took up that task and looked around for information on the two men. She turned up a website criticizing one of the gubernatorial candidates for his less-than-conservative views on a variety of issues. The candidate, the site's authors said, had been so unsupportive of pro-life goals that pro-life Republicans should clearly vote against him.

They are probably correct. The site listed some of the answers the candidate had provided to questions posed by pro-life groups in 1994, and they seem to show an antagonism toward legal protection for the unborn. Yet the questions themselves revealed some disturbing things about pro-life politics in the United States. As I read the questions carefully, I actually found myself taking a position against the pro-life groups on several questions they regard as key to ending abortion-on-demand. This article, and others in this short series, will examine several of those questions.

One question concerned the infamous abortion drug, RU-486. Unlike most pro-lifers, I would favor the free importation of RU-486 into the United States. This is because I oppose any regulatory barrier to trade, no matter how much I despise the use of the commodity imported. No commodity, by itself, is inherently evil, and we cannot determine for certain that the commodity will be used in an evil manner without further evidence. Even RU-486 began as an anti-cancer drug, though one with rather bad side effects. It is murder that should be illegal, not the manufacture, sale, or possession of the "weapon."

Though abortion is a dreadful and intolerable practice, it is critical that we do not sacrifice important principles as we seek to stop it. Trying to eliminate evil through an ad hoc approach rather than a principled approach can result in the widespread loss of other freedoms. Some of these same conservatives who oppose RU-486 would vociferously defend the right of a law-abiding citizen to purchase and possess a handgun. Everyone will admit that handguns are used for evil as well as good, but the anti-gun-control crowd has argued (quite rightly) that it is the improper use of handguns that should be illegal, not their manufacture, sale, or possession.

What if the good to be banned seems to have no legitimate use? RU-486, after all, is not being currently used to treat cancer and the only reason someone would purchase the drug is to kill an unborn child. In all likelihood, the drug will be used for a murderous purpose — can we not prohibit it altogether? Christians should first ask whether there is any power, express or implied, given to the state to ban or otherwise restrict the possession of implements of murder. A diligent search of Scripture will turn up no such power. The purpose of the civil magistrate's sword-bearing is primarily vengeance, not prevention of evil. (Romans 13:4 calls the civil ruler "an avenger.") If crimes are deterred by the threat of civil vengeance, then some measure of prevention has been accomplished. But prevention is the side effect, not the goal. Today, the vast body of regulation, whether of drugs or guns or lists of ingredients on cereal boxes, is an effort to prevent wrongdoing, not to punish it.

R.J. Rushdoony contended that the attempt to eliminate the possibility of sin through regulations was essentially humanistic and opposed to God's way of salvation. In the February, 1979 Chalcedon Report, he wrote:

[A]nother humanistic approach to the problem of law is salvation by regulation. The purpose of the state and of law is seen as prevention. By means of a multitude of rules and regulations, the humanistic state proposes to control man so thoroughly that sin will become impossible. Men will be good, because no other option will be open to them.
Superficially, this principle has been with us for centuries, and some aspects of it have been adopted by many Christians. To go beyond God's law is to play god, and to hope for salvation by man-made means. Thus, temperance is clearly required by God's law; law-enforced prohibition is another matter. It is not liquor which turns men into drunkards, in the moral sense, but intemperate men who use liquor to become drunkards. Guns do kill, but gun control does not alter the murderous heart of man. When we stress the legal solution, we under-rate or by-pass the religious answer. We then give ourselves and society a false emphasis.

Recognizing, then, that the powers that are ordained of God are also limited by God to a certain sphere of responsibilities, we cannot transgress those limitations without severe consequences. We must remember that we cannot add to the functions of the state where God's law appears deficient to us. I have failed to see in Scripture any justification for state involvement in the regulation of pharmaceuticals.

Pragmatists will respond that RU-486-induced murders would be unstoppable without a ban on the drug. Usually, an RU-486-induced abortion would not be evident to anyone but the woman who took the drug. Therefore, large numbers of abortions conducted in this way might take place with no effective civil remedy.

It is tempting to depart from principle at this point and try to prevent a crime by a means God has not authorized. Yet we must remember the classic Biblical case of a pragmatic departure from God's law. In I Samuel 13, King Saul grew impatient with God's ceremonial procedures and made a burnt offering in place of the prophet Samuel. As a result, Saul lost his kingdom. Man is not to second-guess God's legal order.

Scripture always binds the state's authority, whether the civil magistrate recognizes it or not. In the United States, the magistrate's power is also defined by the Constitution. It may be tempting, at times, to violate the terms of the Constitution in order to achieve a "higher" goal. We might, for example, wish to bypass the 6th Amendment (prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure) so that terrorists can be caught and prosecuted. Yet we have historically recognized, in this country, that there are other threats besides terrorism. The threat that was apparently central in the minds of the Framers was an unlimited government. Vastly more people have been unjustly killed by their own governments than by terrorism. We are locking the cage of the rabid weasel with a padlock borrowed from the tiger's cage. Similarly, granting the state additional powers in order to stop RU-486 might result in unforeseen new hazards to human life.

This is why it is important to remember that there are other institutions in society besides the civil government that can serve as a disciplinary influence on us. Rather than depending on an unsympathetic state, we might rely upon the family, the church, or other institutions in society to restrain evil. With regard to abortion, other institutions have stepped in, with some success. The refusal of politicians to effectively outlaw abortion has forced these other institutions to do what they should be doing anyway. Churches, as well as thousands of concerned individuals, have begun to support crisis pregnancy centers and other ministries to unwed mothers. This makes abortion a less attractive option.

I fully recognize that failing to support a ban on RU-486 places me at odds with many pro-lifers. However, I am concerned about the long-run effects of this "legal solution." Throwing out key principles that constrain the state for a temporary victory over RU-486 means those principles will not be there when those constraints are needed. Following unbiblical principles of civil authority in order to end abortion will foster an even more expansive, unbiblical state that turns on Christian values (and Christians), whenever the political power to do so exists. What a statement Christians would be making to the world about the authority of Scripture if we agreed to say, "we are giving up this political means to curtail abortion, because we hold the wisdom of God's Word in higher regard than our own wisdom. God cares about means as well as ends, and we have come to realize that what is politically expedient is not necessarily Biblical."

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  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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