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A lesson from President Lincoln

A step-by-step approach to banning abortion will save as many lives as possible

Pro-live activists rally outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2022. Associated Press/Photo by Jose Luis Magana

A lesson from President Lincoln
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In the two years since the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement has struggled to unify on a path forward, even as pro-abortion activists have scored win after win both domestically and internationally. Yet as pro-lifers strive to create a culture in which abortion is not only undesirable but unthinkable, they should hew to the blueprint set out by the greatest political movement in American history: emancipation.

The abolition of slavery was only able to advance in fits and starts, and yet with major leaps forward. First, Americans were banned from international trafficking. Eventually, the international import of slaves to the United States was banned, and then, many decades later, slavery was banned altogether with the 13th Amendment.

Several years before then, however, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. While rightly remembered as a great moral and political achievement, in truth it was a half-measure. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation only applied to a distant Confederacy beyond his control, doing nothing to address the fact of slavery within the several Union states where it remained legal. Lincoln had a war to prosecute, and radical measures could undermine everything he was working towards (including the gradual overturn of the practice of slavery).

In the present day, the Dobbs v. Jackson decision has caught another historic political movement on the back foot. Since Dobbs’ reversal of Roe, the pro-life movement has been unable to rally behind a unified way forward for the protection of human life.

Some say the movement should abandon national legislation restricting abortion, even while every pro-life ballot initiative at the state level has failed, even in more conservative states. Others say that national legislation is the way to go, but passing such legislation seems unlikely, given the fact that our Congress cannot even agree that infanticide should be made illegal (the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act has failed miserably each of the five times it’s been introduced). And then there’s the dissension between “abortion abolitionists,” some of whom do not support any pro-life measure less than completely outlawing the practice from the moment of fertilization, and abortion “incrementalists,” who are willing to move the ball forward even one yard at a time if that’s all that’s politically possible, until abortion is eventually outlawed completely.

The pro-life movement cannot afford to stop pushing forward. Yet it still seems as divided as ever. And former President Donald Trump’s waffling position is only one example.

Pushing for a compromise policy makes it hard for individuals not to feel morally compromised.

In February, the New York Times reported that former President Trump privately signaled his support for a 16-week national ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. The report marked a notable change in Trump’s attitude toward a national abortion restriction; just last year, he was blasted by pro-life groups for saying that abortion laws should be left to the states to decide. But it also highlighted just how ambivalent Trump is about abortion. He reportedly said he liked a 16-week restriction because of the roundness of the number. “It’s even,” Trump said, “It’s four months.” (It seems unlikely that Mr. Trump has considered or cares about the roundness of the skull that must be forcibly crushed by 16 weeks’ gestation in order to ensure the baby’s death prior to delivery.)

Surprisingly, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the largest pro-life organization in America, praised the report, saying that they “strongly agreed with President Trump,” and that a “majority of Americans” support such a minimum limit. Other pro-life groups were less than enthused, highlighting just how deep the divide in the pro-life movement goes. Students for Life of America tweeted, “Babies don’t magically go from ‘clumps of cells’ at 15 weeks & six days, to human babies at 16 weeks.”

Yet Trump has since waffled again, saying in April that he would not sign a federal limit for abortion into law, but that if elected he would “come together with all groups” and “negotiate something” that would “make all sides happy.” And despite the fact that Trump clearly has no real moral scruples about abortion and merely uses the pro-life and evangelical voting blocs to his own advantage, there are similarities to his willingness to serve as a “negotiator” for federal abortion restrictions and Lincoln’s brokerage of the abolition of slavery, which was similarly fought with piecemeal measures.

Pushing for a compromise policy makes it hard for individuals not to feel morally compromised. Even if a 16-week restriction were enacted, it would still be a wicked status quo, failing to prevent 96 percent of abortions, the majority of which occur before 10 weeks. And there would be no assurance that a future President Trump would even sign such a limit, nor continue pushing for more restrictive laws. On the other hand, it would set a limit in thirty states that currently doesn’t exist, which means that some lives would be saved, even as the movement continues to push for more restrictive limits.

Some reports have shown that abortions have actually risen since Roe’s reversal, thanks to those 30 states with little or no abortion restrictions, making it clear that, much like in Lincoln’s time, we cannot survive “half slave and half free,” nor “half pro-life and half pro-abortion.” If and when pro-lifers come to Trump’s negotiating table, they should never compromise on reminding him when life begins, nor stop fighting for abortion’s abolition from that point: the moment of conception. At the same time, our policymakers can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Ultimately, we must work both for the protection of human life and for the changing of hearts and minds. Two years after Dobbs’ reversal of Roe, it’s long past time for the pro-life movement to coalesce on a path forward.

Katelyn Walls Shelton

Katelyn Walls Shelton is a Bioethics Fellow at the Paul Ramsey Institute. She is a women’s health policy consultant who previously worked to promote the well-being of women and the unborn at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Union University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, John, and their three children.


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