What Does Rareness Have to Do With It?

Senator Bernie Sanders (I, Vt.) in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2019 (Carlos Barria/ Reuters)

As John McCormack notes below, Bernie Sanders was asked last night about late-term abortion and whether women should have a right to abort a pregnancy at any moment until birth.

“I think that that happens very, very rarely,” Sanders replied. “At the end of the day,” Sanders continued, “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government.” (It’s always fun to hear a socialist who thinks that the state should take all sorts of decisions out of the hands of a free people suddenly sound libertarian on this one issue).

As John (and Ramesh) point out, late-term abortions are not in fact all that rare. But what if they were?

What I mean is, I’ve never really understood this talking point. Opponents of the death penalty argue — in good faith — that one of the main reasons capital punishment should be banned is that the risk of wrongly taking even a single life is just too great. There’s a debate about how many, if any, wrongful executions have happened, but the truth is even if they do, they really are exceedingly rare.

Think of it this way. If person A is wrongly sentenced to death for a heinous murder he didn’t commit, it is wrong to execute him. If person B has been rightly sentenced to death for a similarly horrific crime, person A’s innocence has no bearing on person B’s guilt. In other words, there’s no transitive property between the cases.

I am perfectly happy to concede there are some truly difficult cases where a very late-term abortion could be justified — because of the health of the mother, lack of viability of the baby, etc. But those cases have no bearing, morally, on a different case where a perfectly healthy baby is aborted for unjustifiable reasons. If a mother in labor is informed at the 11th hour that the baby is a girl and she decides that’s not what she wants, that is not a just reason to end the baby’s life. Of course, it may be that such situations are vanishingly rare. But how does that change the moral equation?

Sanders’s position is that all pregnancies can be terminated at any point prior to birth because he makes no distinction between such cases. The rareness claim is a smokescreen and nothing more. If Sanders (and so many others who hold the same position) wanted to argue that we must keep abortion legal for these rare cases because that’s the only way to ensure access to abortion for more justifiable situations, he would at least be logically consistent.

Such maximalist arguments are common when it comes to gun rights or free speech. For instance, we often hear that we must allow people to deny the Holocaust lest we erode our right to free expression more broadly. The difference is that virtually all serious free-speech advocates admit that some free speech is truly awful. The abortion maximalists find themselves denying even the possibility that any abortion could be awful, regardless of the reason. If Sanders said, “I think aborting pregnancies for capricious or arbitrary reasons is wrong, but we have to allow it anyway to protect the core right of reproductive choice” I’d have more respect for his position because it would at least be honest.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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