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Moral Federalism: Does A President's Abortion Policy Matter?

October 30th, 2007 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

George F. Will says "no."

Many, perhaps most, Americans, foggy about the workings of their government, think that overturning Roe would make abortion, one of the nation's most common surgical procedures, illegal everywhere. All it actually would do is restore abortion as a practice subject to state regulation. But because Californians are content with current abortion law, their legislature probably would adopt it in state law.

Joseph Knippenberg counters:

Stated another way, the debate about abortion isn’t simply a political or legal or constitutional debate. It’s a moral debate. For abortion proponents, giving up the status quo for "moral federalism" is a step in the wrong direction, a step toward a new moral constellation. Moral federalism is an end-state only if it’s legitimate to have essentially any preference regarding abortion. Since that’s in effect what we have now--i.e., what the law "teaches" now--if moral federalism is something different it’s different because its merely a political accommodation with "sin," that is, a step on the road to further delegitimization of abortion. A good thing, I think, but not one that folks to my left will acquiesce in.

Indeed.  Will's claim that a candidate's position on pro-life issues shouldn't matter in the election demonstrates a naivety about the pro-life agenda, which in its best manifestations is seeking Wilberforce-type tactics to end-run abortion laws.  A president not committed to pro-life issues may not be as invested, say, in easing the tax burden on single mother as a president who has moved that position to the center of their governing framework.

In other words, policies on abortion matter in presidential candidates, as the commitments a candidate holds there will (if he is to be consistent at all!) inform and expose his commitments elsewhere.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.