I was devastated the other day when I learned that Jonah Goldberg is leaving The National Review. He, more than any other writer, has helped me to maintain my sanity in the socio-political realm over the past three years. Yet, I was heartened to learn that he intends to form a new conservative platform with an emphasis, not just on conservative analysis, but hard reporting as well. And by conservative, he doesn’t mean FoxNews 2.0.
It was a happy coincidence then when I read his latest newsletter, The G-File. His thoughts on abortion are (as usual) presented in a more crystallized form than I could ever have done.
So, enjoy Mr. Goldberg; if a topic such as this, complete with blood-soaked history, can ever be enjoyed. Here he is:
I don’t like debating abortion, but every now and then I get dragooned into it. The other day, I was on Guy Benson and Marie Harf’s radio show, and we got into it because Ben Sasse’s Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act bill had just gone down in flames. I like Marie quite a bit, and I think she tries very hard to give conservatives a fair hearing, so I don’t mean any of this as a personal criticism. But she ran through all of the usual arguments, the chief of which was the old saw about how conservatives are hypocrites because they want the government out of everything, yet they want the state to regulate women’s reproductive choices.
My problem with this argument is that it suffers from a profound category error. The first obligation of the state is to protect human life. This is what Max Weber was getting at when he said the state has a “monopoly on violence.” In a decent and free society, this monopoly has only a handful of legitimate exceptions. The most important and obvious is the right to self-defense, which is an absolute natural right that is prior to any form of government. You cannot pass a just and enforceable law barring people from fighting for their life when attacked.
The other exceptions are fairly minor and still fall under the regulatory power of the state. Boxers need licenses after all. Police have discretion about how to deal with bar room fights. Whether or not spanking is good or bad for kids, I think parents have a right to do it. But we all recognize that the state has a right to intervene when parents go much beyond that kind of thing. A swat on the backside for a misbehaving child isn’t the government’s business. A parent who beats or burns their kid should have their kid taken away.
This sliding scale has an analogue in the abortion debate — not theologically or scientifically perhaps — but culturally and politically. Most Americans favor abortion rights shortly after conception through the end of the first trimester. Even larger majorities are opposed to late-term abortions.
Again, putting aside the philosophical, scientific, and theological arguments, this simply makes sense. People can understandably debate whether a young embryo should be considered a human being. But there is simply no credible moral argument that a viable baby should not be considered a human being. A late-term fetus strikes most reasonable people as a baby, not some abstracted and euphemized thing called “uterine contents” or whatnot. And a delivered baby outside the womb or in the process of delivery is, simply, a baby. The Barbara Boxer view that a baby miraculously becomes a baby only after you bring it home from the hospital is a moral monstrosity.
And this is why conservative pro-lifers are not hypocrites when they say the state should intervene on the behalf of babies. The real hypocrisy cuts the other way. Liberal abortion rights supporters — speaking broadly — have no principled objection to the state regulating the size of our sodas, banning plastic straws or regulating free speech. But going by the statements and votes of the last month — by Ralph Northam, Andrew Cuomo, Kamala Harris, and so many others — they draw the line at regulating infanticide.
Harris, a 2020 hopeful who voted against Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s bill, would not say if abortion was ever immoral.
“I think it’s up to a woman to make that decision, and I will always stand by that,” she told The DCNF. “I think she needs to make that decision with her doctor, with her priest, with her spouse. I would leave that decision up to them.”
Harris supports the Women’s Health Protection Act (as do Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kristen Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders). It would eliminate nearly all limits on abortion from late-term bans to abortions based on sex-selection (one wonders how they would feel if transgender fetuses could be identified in utero).
This isn’t ordered liberty; it’s the freedom of the jungle which says you can do whatever you can get away with. It’s fine to argue that “abortions” of viable, healthy, babies are rare (putting aside all the begged questions implicit in the word “healthy.” Do otherwise healthy kids with Down Syndrome count as unhealthy?). But what we’re talking about is the principle. If I said, “Look, it’s extremely rare for women to kill left-handed dudes named Todd who think E.L.O was better than the Rolling Stones,” that would be a true statement. It would not be an argument for killing that poor unlucky Todd with terrible taste in music (Jack’s view notwithstanding).
Just as socialism represents an atavistic impulse to return to pre-modern understandings of politics, the new push for killing inconvenient babies — in principle — is a barbaric step backward to pre-civilized past. Infanticide in our natural environment was incredibly common. This is from part of my book that didn’t make publication:
With the exception of the Jews, virtually all ancient societies, Western and non- Western, routinely butchered, burned, smothered or otherwise slaughtered their own children (and the children of their enemies even more). The Svans of Ancient Georgia murdered newborn girls by filling their mouths with hot ashes. In parts of Ancient China, female babies were killed by submerging them in buckets of cold “baby water.” In feudal Japan, the practice of Makibi (a term borrowed from rice farming meaning “thinning out”) was widespread. Unwanted babies — mostly girls, but also some boys, particularly twins (which were considered unlucky or dangerous in many pre-modern societies) — were snuffed out with a wet cloth. In India infants were sometimes thrown into the Ganges as sacrifices or had their throats cut.
As the anthropologist Laila Williamson famously wrote:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.
In pre-historic times, which were no Eden, our ancestors often killed their offspring because they were a real burden and adoption agencies were few and far between. And when I say a real burden, I mean a real burden. Mothers often didn’t have enough milk to feed two infants, which is why the killing of twins was so common. Crying babies when enemy tribes or predators are about are as inconvenient as hungry toddlers when food is scarce.
One aspect of the amazing miracle of the environment we live in now – i.e. civilization — is that killing babies is no longer a necessity, but a luxury. This move to disguise this hideous luxury as a new form of necessity is not a sign that we are advancing as a civilization, but that we are regressing, back to when killing babies was natural and normal.