Is there anything new to say about the abortion issue after all these years?

No doubt it continues to cause controversy. The Democrat-controlled Senate won't confirm President Bush's judicial appointees if they are suspected of harboring pro-life sympathies. Democratic lawmakers and activists are furious about the Bush administration's decision to let states classify fetuses as “unborn children” eligible for government-funded health programs.

But is there anything new to say about it all? I believe so, and strangely what I have learned about it comes from studying the Lincoln-Douglas debates. These debates occurred in the nineteenth century, and were about slavery. But look at how closely the arguments parallel the abortion debate.

Stephen Douglas, the Democrat, took the pro-choice position. He said that each state should decide for itself whether or not it wanted slavery. Douglas denied that he was pro-slavery. In fact, at one time he professed to be “personally opposed” to it. At the same time, Douglas was reluctant to impose his moral views on the new territories. Douglas affirmed the right of each state to choose. He invoked the great principle of freedom of choice.

Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, disagreed. Lincoln argued that choice cannot be exercised without reference to the content of the choice. How can it make sense to permit a person to choose to enslave another human being? How can self-determination be invoked to deny others self-determination? How can choice be used to negate choice? At its deepest level, Lincoln is saying that the legitimacy of freedom as a political principle is itself dependent on a doctrine of natural rights that arises out of a specific understanding of human nature and human dignity.

If Negroes are like hogs, Lincoln said, then the pro-choice position is right, and there is no problem with choosing to own them. Of course they may be governed without their consent. But if Negroes are human beings, then it is grotesquely evil to treat them like hogs, to buy and sell them as objects of merchandise.

The argument between Douglas and Lincoln is very similar in content, and very nearly in form, to the argument between the pro-choice and the pro-life movements. Pro-choice advocates don't like to be considered pro-abortion. Many of them say they are “personally opposed.” One question to put to them is, “Why are you personally opposed?” The only reason for one to be personally opposed to abortion is that one is deeply convinced that the fetus is more than a mere collection of cells, that it is a developing human being.

The ‘hard-liners’ of the pro-life movement are misguided.

Even though the weight of the argument is strongly on the pro-life side, the pro-choice side seems to be winning politically. This is because liberals understand that abortion-on-demand is the debris of the sexual revolution. If you are going to have sexual promiscuity, then there are going to be mistakes, and many women are going to get pregnant without wanting to do so. For them, the fetus becomes what one feminist writer termed “an uninvited guest.” As long as the fetus occupies the woman's womb, liberals view it as an enemy of female autonomy. Thus liberalism is willing to grant to the woman full control over the life of the fetus, even to the point of allowing her to kill it. No other liberal principle, not equality, not compassion, is permitted to get in the way of the principle of autonomy.

The abortion issue reveals the bloody essence of modern liberalism. In fact, it is the one issue on which liberals rarely compromise. Being pro-choice is a litmus test for nomination to high office in the Democratic Party. Liberals as a group oppose any restriction of abortion. They don't want laws that regulate late-term abortion. Many liberals object to parental notification laws that would notify the parents if a minor seeks to have an abortion. Some liberals would even allow partial-birth abortion, a gruesome procedure in which the abortionist dismembers a child that could survive outside the womb. One may say that in the church of modern liberalism, abortion has become a sacrament.

What, then, is the challenge facing the pro-life movement? It is the same challenge that Lincoln faced: to build popular consent for the restriction and ultimately the ending of abortions. Right now the pro-life movement does not enjoy the support of the American people to do this. Neither, by the way, did Lincoln have a national mandate to end slavery. It is highly significant that Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He was resolutely anti-slavery in principle, but his political campaign focused on the issue of curtailing the spread of slavery to the territories.

In my view, the pro-life movement at this point should focus on seeking to reduce the number of abortions. At times this will require political and legal fights, at times it will require education and the establishment of alternatives to abortion, such as adoption centers. Unfortunately such measures are sometimes opposed by so-called hardliners in the pro-life movement. These hardliners are misguided. They want to outlaw all abortions, and so they refuse to settle for stopping some abortions, with the consequence that they end up preventing no abortions. These folks should learn some lessons from Abraham Lincoln.

Dinesh D'Souza's new book is Letters to a Young Conservative (Basic Books).

He is the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution.