By Miles Smith
In 1781 Thomas Jefferson left the office of governor of Virginia and wrote the sole book-length work attributed to him. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson reflected on what he knew was the great moral failure his society maintained and perpetuated: chattel slavery. He worried that slavery made masters worrisomely despotic. Slaveholding families were “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.” He never proposed a solution to what he clearly knew was the problem of slavery, he believed that the moral weight of such a monstrously immoral system did not escape divine notice. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep.”
In 2019, another governor of Virginia confronts another moral abomination: extreme late term abortions. Ralph Northam, the 73rd governor of Virginia, commented on a radio program regarding a bill introduced in the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran, a member from affluent suburban Fairfax County, introduced a bill that would effectually legalize infanticide in the Commonwealth. Delegate Todd Gilbert asked her if there were any controls in her bill that might prohibit abortion up to the point of birth, going so far as to ask quite clinically if a women in labor might request an abortion. Tran answered: “My bill would allow that.”
Tran’s answer immediately triggered an outcry and hyperbole has unfortunately occurred in the abortion debate. But the outcry appeared to be justified. Her answer was direct, and unequivocal. What is not hyperbolic is that brutal brazenness of the proposal, and the surprising support it already has. At least 22 delegates in the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly—including the delegate who represents my district—sponsored and co-sponsored a bill that allows a woman on an operating table carrying a full term (40 week, typically 19 inches long, and averaging around seven pounds) baby, already dilated, to request that their child be killed, to guard their physical or emotional health.
The governor appeared on a radio program, and addressed the proposed bill. He addressed third trimester abortions broadly, and then spoke about what happens if abortions are sought at during labor.
If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.
The governor casually allowed for the possibility of leaving a dying infant on an operating table.
That the governor of Virginia would advocate for such a brutal despotism over the unborn and very-recently-born should seem shocking. Especially in a state where the motto is the incredibly unsubtle Sic Semper Tyrannus. Virginia has been called the birthplace of liberty. One of its governor’s wrote the Declaration of Independence. Another, Patrick Henry, famously declared at the beginning of the American Revolution: “Give me liberty! Or Give me death!” George Washington was the Father of his country. James Madison is known as the Father of Constitution and wrote the Bill of Rights. And yet for all of their worthy labors to enact liberty in Virginia and in the United States, each of the aforementioned men owned human beings. All of them seemed uncomfortable with it to some degree. Washington actuated the manumission of slaves at Mount Vernon. Madison worked to limit the slave trade. None of them proposed its immediate abolition. But none saw slavery as a positive good.
Jefferson’s successor in the gubernatorial chair campaigned as a business-friendly moderate Democrat. The state that Ralph Northam governs is unusual in that it abuts the federal capital in Washington and most of the state’s economic growth occurs in the counties that surround the District of Columbia. These counties are not simply the most affluent in Virginia. They are the among the wealthiest in the United States. Four of the ten richest county-level municipalities in the United States are in Northern Virginia. Five Virginia counties and one independent city are in the top fifteen. The bill’s sponsor represents Fairfax County, the second richest county in the United States. These are not communities full of destitute people unable to feed children. They are paragons of liberal capitalist affluence.
Northam has delivered on his promise to be “business friendly.” In the fall of 2018 he wooed Amazon to Arlington County’s Crystal City with massive tax incentives. In many ways this apparent centrism appeals to large swaths of Virginia’s increasingly concentrated suburban voters. Amazon, like abortion, claims the mantle of necessity and understandable convenience. But both confront Virginians and Americans with an essential question: how much of our souls are we willing to forfeit for the promises of convenience and material comfort that liberalism has promised and, to its credit, delivered?
Amazon, for example, has weathered questions regarding questionable business ethics in its much publicized “search” for the location of its second headquarters. Its labor practices have also been scrutinized after reports emerged that workers afraid they might lose their jobs for taking bathroom breaks resorted to urinating in bottles. These failures are not unique to Amazon. They are prevalent in most major corporations in the United States.
Amazon’s benefits to society seemed incalculable. I love my Kindle, and Amazon’s studios regularly produce some of the best television in that medium’s history. We have all sorts of goods readily available at our fingertips. I don’t have to leave my home to acquire almost anything I want. I need my debit card, and my Amazon account. Life is good. And in so many ways it is. But at what cost? So far the cost is a crisis of loneliness, a growing retail collapse among brickfront businesses, and the worrisome consolidation of wealth among well-educated elites who have low rates of birth and family formation.
Likewise maybe Governor Northam isn’t leaving a healthy baby on the table to die. Maybe, as has been suggested, he’s merely talking about a terminally ill child. And although the death of a deformed or terminally ill should might be sad, everyone else’s existence will clearly be made more convenient. Yes there might be short-term hurt, but imagine having to raise a deformed child? A child who can’t move on their own? A child with Downs? Governor Northam worked for eighteen years with terminally ill children at a hospital in Norfolk, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone caring for sick children as a moral monster.
But even if he’s only talking about the terminally sick, we should tremble. A society that refuses to help sick infants is a society that will very rapidly refuse to admit the worth of aged patients who are terminally sick. What’s to stop the same society from identifying citizens with Down Syndrome as unworthy of life? Most ominously, who will be able to tell depressed and unproductive citizens that they deserve and must live, even when they don’t want to or believe that they don’t matter?
And yet American society continues to walk down this road. We have made our choice. We are fine with accepting abortion on demand as our price—a tax, as it were, excised by liberalism on babies—for our material affluence. We, the living, enjoy our station because we are able to exercise a complete tyranny on our living posterity. Our control is so complete we are able to even discard our unborn progeny if they would in any way inhibit not merely our physical, but our emotional well-being.
Likewise wouldn’t freedoms for the unborn ultimately fly in the face our cherished liberal freedoms: to do with our bodies and our monies exactly what we would will? In our desperate clinging to liberal freedoms, we have created an underclass of the unborn by which we can forever measure our liberties. We may not have much, but at least we have a right to life, provided we make it through the birth canal first.
Of course the poor aren’t the only demographic that supposedly gain from abortion. The wealthy do too. What better trinket to offer a potentially restless underclass than the awe-inspiring right to control nature. Mountains of money might separate the rich and the poor, but both have equal right and ability to terminate a natural obstacle to their perceived well-being. Abortion levels Americans in an era of rapidly rising income inequality. This bears out in the unique coalition of affluent suburbia, gentrified urbanites, and the non-gentrified urban working class that regularly unite to support abortion on demand.
In 1976 Edmund Morgan proposed in his Pulitzer-winning American Slavery, American Freedom that the liberty for white Virginians depended on the creation of a permanent underclass so that even the poor might feel equal the rich in a society where inequality increasingly reigned. The legal enslavement of Africans continued for 246 years, all the while being seen, for better or worse, as a staple of white liberty. Modern’s Virginia’s liberal technocratic liberties demand the enslavement of another demographic: the unborn. Only this time, the governor doesn’t seem to be trembling.
Dr. Miles Smith IV is assistant professor in the Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice at Regent University.