The first article in this series examined the principles behind opposing the abortion drug RU-486. As I noted in that article, pro-life groups have often linked opposition to abortion with certain political goals that may have serious flaws. Banning RU-486 entails a state power to regulate that is not one of the biblically sanctioned duties of the civil magistrate. More generally, an injudicious zeal to fight abortion by granting the state unbiblical powers could produce the rise of other evils that were only held at bay by adherence to biblical constraints on civil government. Though abortion is an intolerable practice, it is critical that we fight it in a way that does not produce an intolerable state.
One of the political goals of pro-lifers has been the passage of a right-to-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some prominent pro-life groups have made support of this proposed amendment a test of one's commitment to ending abortion in this country. The reason is understandable. Certainly one could expect an amendment to have the permanence and authority that would force even the most headstrong court into a pro-life stance. Perhaps, if worded strongly enough, a right-to-life amendment would save the lives of millions of unborn children every year.
When the issue is stated like this, how could one see a right-to-life amendment as anything but a positive thing for the pro-life position? Can someone oppose abortion without favoring a right-to-life amendment? Perhaps so, if such an amendment violates the principles that safeguard a thousand other freedoms.
My reservations about a right-to-life amendment do not have the support of a proof-text from Scripture. When it comes to questions about the structure of the U.S. government, the issue sometimes becomes one of wise application of a biblical principle rather than obedience to a specific command of God. How many branches of government should there be? Shall a president serve a term of four years or six years? Should there be term limits? How should representatives be apportioned among the electorate? Questions like these must be answered with reference to what God has made known to us about the nature of man and the responsibilities of the civil magistrate.
The framers of our federal government understood (more clearly than we) the sinful nature of man and the importance of keeping rulers accountable for their actions. No one person, or legislative body, was entrusted with unconstrained power. At the federal level, the framers were particularly wary of the dangers of consolidating too much power in a remote, centralizing authority. Therefore, the republic was originally set up with a relatively decentralized form of government. The plain reading of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights suggests that the roles of the federal government were few and carefully limited. Essentially, the federal government was only to perform those functions that the states had struggled to perform on their own. Most powers remained with the states, and in the nation's first few decades, the state government would have been much more important to the ordinary citizen than the federal government. Today, of course, state governments have been reduced to something like regional administrative offices.
There is no law against murder in the Constitution-that is not the purpose of that document, or even of the federal government. The Constitution of the United States leaves criminal law to the states, and was never intended to make all crimes into federal issues. Any prohibition against abortion ought to be a state concern, just as prohibitions against any form of murder are state concerns. Pro-lifers who want to use a federal instead of a state route to ending abortion are undermining the intent of the original Constitution.
Some might protest that it is necessary to use whatever political means are necessary to end abortion, even if that means making use of governmental powers that we would not advocate in other circumstances. While the awfulness of abortion may seem to dictate exceptional measures, we forget that unleashed civil governments have perpetrated worse atrocities. Today most Americans find it hard to believe that the U.S. government is capable of genocide. However, when we give up the legal principles that limit that government, we leave the American civilization vulnerable to a gradual erosion of freedoms that could well culminate in genocide. Lesser attacks on our freedoms have appeared, and will certainly continue. What would Christians say if a "children's rights" amendment were proposed, forbidding corporal punishment, requiring federal monitoring of home schooling families, and allowing children to sue their parents for violating their privacy or not buying them Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs? Many of us would vigorously contest such a move. Some would argue, quite rightly, that such ridiculousness should be confined to ridiculous states that want more illiteracy and school shootings, and not imposed upon the rest of us. How can we make such a decentralist argument if we have ignored decentralist arguments made by the opponents of a right-to-life amendment?
In the U.S., we have seen such massive centralization in the last 140 years or so that it might seem an absurd waste of effort to try to regain so much lost ground now. Why not admit to our de facto federalization and form our pro-life strategy accordingly? The hazards in such pragmatism are extreme. Throwing out key principles that constrain the state to get a temporary victory over abortion means those principles will not be there when those constraints are needed to prevent other horrors. It is true that the youngest person reading this may not live to see every state legally regard abortion as murder, much less see the kind of constitutionality that we hope for. Yet the benefits of a principled adherence to a biblically limited form of government are enormous. It is worth spending centuries to regain them.
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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.