Can You be a Pro-Choice Conservative?

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Wednesday, May 1, 2019


One of the most pervasive debates within the conservative movement is what makes someone a conservative. Some suggest that there are non-negotiable issues that one must align with to be a genuine conservative. For example, having pro-choice views on abortion is seen by some conservatives as an immediate disqualification from the conservative movement. There are all sorts of implications that may arise from such a strict premise, so it’s important that we define our terms and identify what we mean by ‘conservatism’ and ‘pro-choice.’

If you ask a dozen people to define conservatism, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. Richard Weaver suggested that conservatism is “a paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.” An eloquent and sophisticated description no doubt, but, unfortunately, one that doesn’t get us much closer to a definition we can work with. William F. Buckley Jr. famously struggled— by his own admission— to offer a cogent definition for the philosophy. Nonetheless, most explanations include some reference to respect for ordered liberty, civil society, virtue, reason, tradition, and gratitude. These core tenets undergird most of the social and political perspectives offered by conservatives.

The pro-choice position on abortion clearly exists on a spectrum, as some pro-choicers only see abortion as defensible for the first few weeks or months of the pregnancy. Others defend abortion up until the moment of birth, with former California Senator Barbara Boxer infamously proclaiming that the baby is not recognized as a person until “you bring your baby home.” Boxer’s position on abortion is ethically indefensible, and it shows that not all pro-choice views are equal.

It is often argued that the protection of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness is fundamental to conservatism, and I agree with this entirely. While I’m very pro-life on both a personal and political level for various biological, philosophical, and ethical reasons, I think that one can simultaneously be a conservative and hold pro-choice views.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that being pro-choice is a conservative position, but that being pro-choice doesn’t disqualify someone from inclusion in conservatism.

Biology has made clear that life does in fact begin at conception, with subsequent cellular division leading to the development of what will be a fully formed human. The conventional conservative position is that a newly conceived life necessitates the same protections as a fully developed human. The arguments defending this view are convincing, but one may also contend that the developing embryo does not warrant the same treatment as a born child.

In the few days following conception, the developing blastocyst has only a few hundred cells. By contrast, the brain of a fly has roughly 100,000 cells. While no rational person views a fly and a human equally, the relative lack of existence of human features makes it difficult to equate the blastocyst with a fully developed human.

It’s estimated that one in five pregnancies results in an incidental miscarriage within the first few months. While this is deeply heartbreaking, we struggle to muster the same sadness in response to the early miscarriage as we do the death of a born child. There are several plausible reasons for this, but, on a basic level, it indicates that psychologically, we simply do not value the developing child to the same degree that we do a born child. Likewise, you’d be hard pressed to find a conservative as legitimately angry over the usage of “Plan B” contraception, which acts after fertilization has occurred, as they are at the murder of a five-year-old child. Pro-lifers are also much more angered by recent radical legislation in New York and Virginia, which seeks to permit abortion until the moment of birth, than they are laws that allow for abortions through the first trimester.

On a philosophical level, one may reasonably believe that a developing baby only becomes worth protecting legally when commonly understood human traits begin to develop. These traits may include organ development, cognition, the ability to feel pain, and so on. This “humanization” is where maintaining a pro-choice position becomes quite difficult to defend.

We need not specify a particular length of time after conception that abortion becomes indefensible, but one can certainly contend that until six, 12, or 20 weeks, the developing child lacks the moral value and legal protection of one that has been born.

There’s also the libertarian-minded position that the state shouldn’t intervene in personal matters involving one’s body, even with a growing child inside. This leads many to be personally pro-life but politically pro-choice, with varying potential restrictions on abortion.

Again, these arguments certainly do not reflect my position on the abortion issue. I’m merely suggesting that this does not preclude someone who is pro-choice from being a conservative on the whole.

To provide an anecdotal example, I have a close friend who is conservative on virtually every conceivable issue, such as taxes, gun rights, immigration, and national defense. He also believes that abortion should be permitted until there are detectable brain waves, usually occurring around eight weeks after conception. Some may even perceive this position as being pro-life, as abortion would be restricted for the majority of the gestation period. Regardless, there is no reason why his constrained pro-choice position ought to prevent him from being a conservative, especially given his consistent conservative views on most, if not all other issues.

A more prominent example of a pro-choice conservative is Barry Goldwater, who was one of the most influential conservatives of the twentieth century. Goldwater was thoroughly conservative on nearly every issue, showing admiration for the previously listed values of ordered liberty, civil society, virtue, reason, tradition, and gratitude. Depriving him of the title of conservative because of his position on one issue seems both unreasonable and counterproductive.

The pro-life movement is central to conservatism, as is the evangelical movement. However, I believe that, much like a conservative can be pro-choice, he may also be atheistic while still maintaining conservative values and positions on nearly every issue.

In his essay Notes towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism, Buckley answered the question of whether one can be a conservative and not believe in God by concisely stating, “Obviously, yes.” He goes on to write that “the pro-religious conservative can therefore welcome the atheist as a full-fledged member of the conservative community.” I agree with Buckley, and believe the analogous example of pro-choice conservatives ought to be treated with similar consideration.

The pro-life perspective is one of many conventional conservative positions, albeit a highly salient one. However, there are other issues that conservatives are deeply passionate about, yet still allow some room for dialogue and dissent. Few conservatives doubt the value of the right to bear arms as a means to preserve one’s own life and liberty. If one were to favor restrictions on ownership of fully-automatic rifles, as most conservatives do, would this prevent him from being a conservative? Likewise, if one supports some limits on Free Speech such as laws regulating libel, slander, or incitement, would this result in an ousting from conservatism?

My point is that making any one issue the conclusive determinant in one’s conservative credentials is misguided, whether it’s abortion, gun rights, Free Speech, immigration, or tax policy. The narrower conservatism becomes as an intellectual movement, the higher the bar for entry. This strategy isn’t conducive to a movement that is already facing a severe uphill battle with the rise of socialism among the younger generations.

I’m not suggesting leaving the door open to anyone to claim themselves as conservative, but to respect some divergence in policy preferences to allow for a more welcoming and vigorous movement. Conservatism has never been and should never become a single issue philosophy, but one that transcends the domains of politics and culture.

Conservative intellectual Frank Meyer developed the notion of “fusionism” to unite all factions of the right on certain foundations of principle, such as the unique value of freedom and the sovereignty of the individual. Different segments of the right— such as libertarians and traditionalists— have long debated the ideal way to balance competing desires and preferences. This internal diversity of thought is part of what makes intellectual conservatism so captivating. Meyer also noted that “conservatism has no monolithic party line,” meaning that uniformity has never been a conservative aspiration.

The Founding Fathers certainly didn’t agree on every issue, as evidenced by the robust debate at the Constitutional Convention and subsequent feuds between Adams and Jefferson, Madison and Mason, and so on. In fact, the exhaustive debate regarding the formulation of the Constitution is part of what made the document, and the country, so exceptional.

While most of the right is undoubtedly pro-life, there are also those that are pro-choice who still maintain a traditional conservative perspective on most other topics. The suggestion that abortion— or any other single issue— should be the ultimate litmus test for admittance into Conservative Inc.™ not only misses the point of conservatism on a philosophical level, but also hinders the ambitions of conservatives on a pragmatic level.

Polling in recent years indicates that the country is split roughly 60/40 in favor of abortion, generally until 20 weeks after conception. Equating conservatism with being pro-life instantly shuts out most of the country from embracing our movement. That’s not a recipe for political success, cultural reception, or philosophical longevity.

While most conservatives, myself included, wish we could convince everyone to recognize the dignity of human life on an epistemic and ethical level, we must also be practical. Excluding countless otherwise conservative people from joining the conservative movement over disagreement on one particular issue is not how we achieve cultural or political success.

We ought to welcome the various factions within the right into conservatism, and commence in a rigorous battle of ideas to elucidate the truth and rationality in our arguments. This is especially true of the pro-life position, as debate on the abortion issue is so often polarized to the point of being unsalvageable. Robust, thoughtful dialogue is how we improve not only conservatism, but society as a whole. The fatuous attempt to preclude pro-choice conservatives from the conservative movement is philosophically erroneous and politically perilous.

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Michael Huling

University of California, San Diego

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

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