Commentary Magazine

Before the Shooting Begins, by James Davison Hunter

Culture War

Before the Shooting Begins.
by James Davison Hunter.
Free Press. 310 pp. $22.95.

James Davison Hunter has written a temperate book about the volatile subject of abortion—more precisely, about the debate that has swirled around our abortion laws for more than two decades.

No one could be unfamiliar with this debate. Abortion has become the preeminent “single issue” of our time. It divides the Republican party, and even alienates many pro-life Democrats from their President. Every candidate for national office must have a stated position on the issue.

In recent sessions of Congress, the most vigorously fought legislative battles have occurred over the relatively narrow questions of whether doctors in federally-supported clinics can make abortion referrals and whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support fetal-tissue research. Senate hearings on appointments to the Supreme Court have been devoted to divining a nominee’s position on Roe v. Wade. This year, the President’s health-care proposal, involving hundreds of billions of dollars in countless areas of American life, may stand or fall on the question of whether abortion should be included in a set of government-defined standard-insurance benefits.

Hunter observes all this with dismay. A sociologist at the University of Virginia, he is the author of an earlier book, Culture Wars, that examined an array of conflicts, from multiculturalism to censorship, to describe national divisions over social and moral issues. But it is the debate over abortion that he believes most critically tests our ability to mediate disputes “in a manner that is in keeping with the ideals set forth in the founding documents of the American republic.” Is it possible, this book asks, to talk about that issue without letting the conversation degenerate into acrimonious and intensely personal exchanges?



The evidence Hunter assembles is not encouraging. He begins by looking at what he calls the “special-agenda” organizations: those (mostly) national groups that are devoted to advancing either the pro-life or the pro-choice position. In interviews with representatives of Operation Rescue, Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, the American Life League, and a handful of others, Hunter shows a debate reduced to sheer sloganeering.

The coat hanger and the fetus are not merely ghoulish symbols of these embattled factions, they have become the essence of their argument. In a remarkable ten-page “glossary of rhetorical distortions,” Hunter juxtaposes quotations from pro-life and pro-choice literature: frenzied, hackneyed accusations peppered with references to “fundamental rights” or “innocent human life.” The debate is dead serious, of course, but the level of sophistication is appallingly superficial.

In Hunter’s view, the problem is compounded by the low state of public-opinion surveys. This point is important because, as he reminds us, public opinion is consistently used as the ultimate evidence to support one argument or another regarding abortion laws. Yet most opinion surveys are intrinsically misleading, taking a complex, difficult moral problem on which individuals often have a full range of sentiments and reducing it to a single, sound-bite-sized question on whether abortion is murder.

Hunter pays particular attention to a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization in 1990, one of the few to examine American opinion about abortion in great detail. The results reveal a public that is far more ambivalent about abortion—and far more worried about it—than most news reports would have us believe.

Thus, 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as strongly or moderately pro-life, while 33 percent are strongly or moderately pro-choice. But scrutiny of these numbers shows that Americans, rather than fitting neatly into pro-life or pro-choice camps, are dispersed across a spectrum of moral opinion. Within that spectrum, there is clearly a high level of public discomfort with unrestricted access to abortion in nearly every circumstance.

A number of provocative statistics emerge from this study: 49 percent of Americans believe abortion is murder, while another 28 percent believe that it does involve the taking of a human life; women are more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice (by 43 to 33 percent); half of Americans believe that already at the instant of conception a child’s right to be born outweighs a woman’s right to choose whether to have the child. Moreover, fewer than 30 percent of Americans believe a woman’s poor financial circumstances make abortion acceptable; fewer than 20 percent approve of it as a means of terminating a pregnancy that would otherwise interrupt a woman’s career; and only a fraction views abortion as acceptable when used as a repeated means of birth control.

In short, the consistent impression conveyed by these figures is that Americans cannot be comfortable with the idea of 1.5 million abortions now being performed each year. But neither can they be satisfied with the now-routine Marches on Washington that have become a grotesque caricature of real national sentiment.



Hunter believes that democratic self-government demands a more enlightened, engaged, and public-spirited conversation. The final third of his book is devoted to exploring how such a conversation might emerge. As he points out, it will not be easy, if only because the critical civic institutions that might educate the public and raise the level of discussion are themselves largely responsible for its current superficiality. The press, in particular, seems wedded to promoting the conflict as a struggle for power between two zealous factions (even while subliminally and often not so subliminally pushing the pro-choice position).

Academics do not bring any greater enlightenment to the subject. Hunter cites the 281 historians who signed a misleading and inaccurate amicus brief promoting a pro-choice legal argument in the 1989 Webster Supreme Court case. “The problem here,” writes Hunter, was “not just flawed history, but a history understood to be flawed in service of a political agenda.” Then there is Laurence Tribe of the Harvard Law School, who thinks that another amicus brief, signed by 885 law professors supporting Roe v. Wade, constitutes proof that the decision was sound jurisprudence.

Hunter believes such partisanship erodes democratic ideals, and argues that the search for a more “substantive democracy” must begin by overcoming the temptation to find political solutions to what is fundamentally a cultural problem. He cites a few (but not too many) examples of communities across the country where differences over abortion have been partially bridged by genuine efforts at public persuasion and serious argument.

There is something undoubtedly appealing about Hunter’s proposal; the idea of communities peacefully navigating the shoals of the abortion controversy is certainly preferable to the menacing confrontations that now occur outside abortion clinics. But his argument is not entirely persuasive.

Recent shifts toward limited state restrictions on abortion (including parental-notification requirements or 24-hour waiting periods) are largely a result not of community-wide discussions but of political decisions by state legislatures wishing to retreat from the regime of unrestricted access to abortion. Similarly, within the Republican party, there has been much political jockeying on this issue. At a national Right to Life conference last year, William J. Bennett urged the pro-life movement to

be inclusive, to welcome into your ranks people who agree with you all of the time, half of the time, a third of the time. Embrace those who have deep concerns about the massive number of abortions even if they are not fully committed to the pro-life agenda.

If heeded, such advice might well lead toward a more substantive consideration of abortion law. So far, however, the discussion has been conducted almost wholly on tactical or political grounds, not on moral or ethical ones.



Why should this be so? Hunter does not sufficiently consider the most obvious answer: in addition to striking down most state abortion laws in 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe decision effectively took the issue away from elected local legislatures and reposed it in the undemocratic branch of the federal government. Since then, virtually all of our major abortion laws have been decided through secret deliberations among Supreme Court Justices.

Until elected legislatures are free to debate and craft their own rules regarding the practice of abortion without incessant constitutional challenge, the type of sustained and vigorous discussions that Hunter seeks will be nearly impossible to achieve. This is not to argue simply for “states’ rights” (which is problematic for those who believe that the right to life is enshrined in the Constitution), but to recognize the fact that the federal judiciary and the federal Congress today dominate local decision-making on a wide spectrum of cultural issues, from abortion to school prayer. What is needed is not just a depoliticization of these issues, as Hunter suggests, but a radical shift of political power back to local, and in some cases nongovernmental, authorities. That shift requires an intensely political campaign that has yet to materialize.

But even if a more probing conversation on abortion were to replace the angry diatribes we now hear, it is not at all clear that Hunter’s prescriptions would bring greater harmony. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, perhaps the most thoughtful moral dialogue this country has ever heard, did nothing to prevent a civil war. As a newly sworn-in President, Lincoln used his first inaugural address to persuade the South to accept a peaceful union: “We are not enemies, but friends,” he concluded. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Six weeks later, he was at war with the Confederacy.

Today, thankfully, we are nowhere near a civil war on abortion. Most Americans, in fact, do not even want to talk about the issue, much less enter a probing, ethically-charged dialogue about it. What Hunter does not sufficiently appreciate is that the kind of searching debate he would like to see would necessarily raise uncomfortable questions which Americans are not in the mood to confront. Despite all the evidence Hunter arrays to show how deeply ambivalent the country is, and how dissatisfying the current debate remains, nowhere do we see a popular stampede for a more engaged discussion. That may reflect the current weakness of our democracy, or it may reflect a strength; in any case, it is a truth that anyone who wants to see more debate—even reasoned debate—on abortion will have to consider.

About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.

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