Not So Far Apart

Ray Jenkins

September 29, 1990|By Ray Jenkins

AT THE RISK of great oversimplification, you could call William Donald Schaefer a conservative Democrat and William S. Shepard a moderate Republican. This being so, their respective ideologies bring them so close together that there are few issues which divide them in the coming governor's race. So it was not surprisingBy that when Schaefer finally got around to formulating his position on the intractable issue of abortion, the long-shot Shepard seized the opportunity to emphasize a genuine difference between the two candidates.

But when we examine their respective positions on the nettlesome question, we find that the difference may be more illusory than real. Under careful analysis, we find they are more together than apart.

At the outset, each candidate declares himself, sincerely and convincingly, to be "pro-life." But from that point the position of each, in its own way, becomes contradictory.

Schaefer's newly declared position, reached after much soul-searching equivocation, is simply that he is "pro-life" in his personal belief but "pro-choice" in his public position. That stance has brought a lot of grief to other governors, notably New York's Mario Cuomo, because the more outspoken clerics of the Roman Catholic Church, notably New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, maintain this is a morally untenable position.

O'Connor would argue emphatically that if you are genuinely "pro-life" personally, you cannot possibly advocate a "pro-choice" public policy. To do so, O'Connor would say, is the moral equivalent of saying that you are personally opposed to slavery but you accept the right of others to hold slaves. And you have to concede that there's a certain tortured logic in that analogy.

Republican candidate Shepard is not caught in that contradiction. He says he's "pro-life" all the way -- publicly and privately. He would allow abortions only when the life of the mother is endangered, when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, and in cases where the fetus shows signs of gross deformity. That is essentially the position which President Bush holds, and we can respect the position as a conscientious belief. (We can respect it insofar as Shepard is concerned, that is; it is harder to respect Bush's position in view of the fact that he executed a complete turnabout from being a traditional New England Planned-Parenthood Republican to being a "pro-life" advocate only after he saw which way the political winds were blowing.)

Even so, close analysis shows that there is a subtle contradiction in Shepard's position which is every bit as morally ambiguous as Schaefer's anguished attempt to reconcile the private-public dichotomy on abortion.

As mentioned, Shepard says he would permit abortion in cases of rape. But if you hold the "pro-life" position in toto -- that is, if you believe that a fetus becomes "innocent human life" from the moment of conception -- then how can you possibly allow the rape exception? After all, the fetus conceived in violent rape is surely no less an "innocent human life" than the fetus conceived in consensual love. If you genuinely hold the "innocent human life" belief, then it follows that aborting a fetus conceived in rape is, from the "pro-life" position, the moral equivalent of executing an existing child of a rapist for his father's crime. And in fact the most uncompromising anti-abortionists -- such as Cardinal O'Connor -- are indeed consistent in objecting to abortions for rape victims.

The fact that Shepard, a man of decent and moderate instincts, would allow abortions for rape victims means, therefore, that he believes that abortion is justifiable under some circumstances. So the difference between his position and Schaefer's is merely a matter of what circumstances justify an abortion.

These disparate yet similar positions illustrate once more that abortion is a matter which simply must be taken out of the realm of political debate and left exclusively to the realm of personal moral choice. That is what the U.S. Supreme Court did in its 1973 decision known as Roe vs. Wade, and it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no workable alternative.

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