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Slippery, selfish, and successful

Why the language of rights beat the pro-life cause at the ballot

Voters line up at a polling place in Bowling Green, Ky., on Nov. 8. Associated Press/Photo by Michael Clubb

Slippery, selfish, and successful

As Republicans massage their bruises after a disappointing midterm election, debate has swirled fast and furious about whom to blame for the mysterious absence of the predicted “red wave.” Some have alleged it as proof that the Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade was a Pyrrhic victory, and that the Democrats’ pro-abortion messaging was successful. Yet other explanations seem at least as compelling. Poor candidate selection played a role in many races, such as the Georgia and Pennsylvania Senate seats. Trump’s continued insistence on making the election about himself surely hurt the GOP with moderate voters. Also, hubris played a part, as Republicans failed to put forward a compelling reason to vote for them and assumed that anyone in their right mind would vote against the Democrats.

But if it is wrong to blame GOP failures on abortion alone, there is no question that election night revealed that the right does have an abortion problem.

Abortion rights were one issue among many in plenty of state and national races, but they were directly on the ballot in five states, in the form of voter actions clarifying the constitutional status of abortion rights in Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, Vermont, and California. In every case, the ballot initiatives dealt a demoralizing defeat to the pro-life cause. Even in deep-red Kentucky, voters rejected a pro-life amendment to the state’s constitution by a 52% to 48% margin.

To be sure, ballot initiatives can be slippery—easily subject to manipulative wording and dishonest messaging, funded by out-of-state pressure groups. Still, it is startling to see the gap in support between conservative, pro-life candidates and such up-or-down pro-life votes. In Kentucky, Rand Paul was handily re-elected to Senate with 61% of the vote. In Montana, where voters returned a historic Republican super-majority to the state legislature, even a modest “born-alive” referendum failed 53% to 47%. Why did pro-life efforts fail so miserably?

Well, for one thing, they disprove the fantasy of the left that angry women, appalled at the very thought of candidates daring to voice opinions on what women should do with their bodies, will automatically punish pro-life candidates. But they also show that when it comes to a straightforward choice between “more rights” or “less rights,” a majority of voters will pull the lever for “more rights” every time.

Voters were conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to respond almost instinctively when any “right” was under threat, or claimed to be.

Of course, pro-life activists will interject that defending life is a “more rights” position—what right could be more important than the unborn child’s “right to life”? While philosophically correct, however, this stance is rhetorically unpersuasive, and it is not hard to see why.

The very language of “rights” tends to tilt the conversation in favor of the self. The phrase “my rights” comes far more readily to our lips than “your rights,” and if I am ever willing to go to bat for your rights, it is probably because I can readily imagine myself in a similar position as you. I can see your rights as rights I myself might want to assert sooner or later. Since I cannot imagine myself in the position of a fetus, any assertions of the unborn child’s rights are likely to seem more abstract and unmotivating.

There was a time when conservatives recognized the slipperiness and selfishness of rights-language, and insisted that any talk of rights must be at least matched with talk of duties. Indeed, they insisted, duties are the basis of rights. It is because I have a duty to praise God that I have a right to worship; it is because I have a duty to provide for my family that I have a right to property. Without talk of duties, “rights” become mere blank checks for self-indulgence. So, it has been in modern American life, as rights discourse has proliferated on both sides of the political spectrum, with precious little breath saved for duties of any kind.

During the past generation or two, conservatives abandoned their former hesitation about rights-talk and heavily invested in the ideals of individual freedom or autonomy. If the left was going to sell their agenda in the currency of autonomy, we could do so, too. Talk about rights was cheap and easy. It saved one the trouble of making an argument on the merits of an issue, or of prudentially balancing rival interests. On issue after issue—taxes, guns, faith, healthcare—traditional conservative positions were repackaged in the armor-plated language of individual rights. Voters were conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to respond almost instinctively when any “right” was under threat, or claimed to be.

Into this milieu, conservatives at last succeeded in throwing what had become one of the most deeply-cherished “rights” of all, the “right” to abortion, back into the hands of the voters of the 50 states. In every case, a majority of these hands did just what they’d been conditioned to do—pull the lever to protect a “right.” In 2022, our libertarian chickens came home to roost. No one should underestimate the challenge we now face.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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