In 1858, two Illinois candidates for U.S. Senate engaged in what would become a historic series of debates. An incumbent Democrat named Stephen A. Douglas sparred with a Republican lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. A primary topic of the debates was the expansion of slavery into the U.S. territories. Douglas argued for a doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty,” in which the territories would be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Lincoln claimed that such a doctrine could cause slavery to spread into the free (non-slave) states, and perpetuate a policy which the U.S. had already limited.
Lincoln lost that election, but as we all know, went on to become the first Republican president. Amendment 13 to the U.S. Constitution — a federal ban on slavery — was ratified not long after his death.
On the November 5, 2007 edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” another Republican office seeker, Sen. Fred Thompson, talked about his views on abortion and the law. Sen. Thompson was asked about the pro-life plank in the Republican party platform:
MR. RUSSERT: This is the 2004 Republican Party platform, and here it is: “We say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution,” “we endorse legislation to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions.” Could you run as a candidate on that platform, promising a human life amendment banning all abortions?
MR. THOMPSON: No.
MR. RUSSERT: You would not?
MR. THOMPSON: No. I have always—and that’s been my position the entire time I’ve been in politics. I thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. I think this platform originally came out as a response to particularly Roe v. Wade because of that. Before Roe v. Wade, states made those decisions. I think people ought to be free at state and local levels to make decisions that even Fred Thompson disagrees with. That’s what freedom is all about. And I think the diversity we have among the states, the system of federalism we have where power is divided between the state and the federal government is, is, is—serves us very, very well. I think that’s true of abortion. I think Roe v. Wade hopefully one day will be overturned, and we can go back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days. But…
Sen. Thompson then touted his personal pro-life convictions and recounted his admirable pro-life voting record in the Senate. Russert followed up:
MR. RUSSERT: So while you believe that life begins at conception, the taking of a human life?
MR. THOMPSON: Yes, I, I, I, I do.
MR. RUSSERT: You would allow abortion to be performed in states if chosen by states for people who think otherwise?
MR. THOMPSON: I do not think that you can have a, a, a law that would be effective and that would be the right thing to do, as I say, in terms of potentially—you can’t have a law that cuts off an age group or something like that, which potentially would take young, young girls in extreme situations and say, basically, we’re going to put them in jail to do that. I just don’t think that that’s the right thing to do. It cannot change the way I feel about it morally, but legally and practically, I’ve got to recognize that fact. It is a dilemma that I’m not totally comfortable with, but that’s the best I can do in resolving it in my own mind.
Sen. Thompson’s argument here is a familiar one: instead of accepting or rejecting the argument for a Constitutional amendment, he appeals to his principle of federalism. In short, it is the Senator’s view that the federal government’s power over the states should be limited to the extent that the Constitution should not be amended in any way that usurps the right of the state. On this campaign trail, he has given us the examples of the Federal Marriage Amendment and now, the Human Life Amendment.
Human life is perhaps the most contentious issue of our time. Sen. Thompson is right: this is an issue where federalism is at stake. The decision of Roe v. Wade by the (federal) Supreme Court led to a federal prohibition on any laws that would ban abortion. Sen. Thompson correctly would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but here he takes federalism a step too far.
In what sounds frighteningly similar to a pro-choice philosophy writ large, Thompson argues that if Roe is overturned, states should be allowed to choose whether or not to prohibit abortion. In other words, he gives more moral significance to his brand of federalism* than he does his personal views on human life.
Ironically, Sen. Thompson argues along the same lines as did Stephen A. Douglas when he championed the expansion of slavery — that is, states should be allowed to choose whether or not to protect a certain people from being deprived of their God-given rights. This raises the salient question: would/does Fred Thompson oppose the constitutional amendment banning slavery?
The answer is, of course, no. Surely he doesn’t elevate the morality of his supposed federalist viewpoint* above the moral imperative to ban slavery. Yet the logic he applies to his opposition to a Federal Marriage Amendment and a Human Life Amendment would likewise deep-six Amendment 13.
I’m fully aware that a Human Life Amendment lacks political viability at the present moment. Pragmatically speaking, overturning Roe v. Wade should have political priority, and I appreciate Sen. Thompson’s commitment to doing what he can to achieve that goal. But saying that protecting the unborn in all 50 states would not be the right thing to do crosses a line that causes me to reconsider my support of his candidacy. Senator Thompson has lost me in his unyielding adherence to a political philosophy over a God-given right.
Perhaps Sen. Thompson should heed the words of his new television commercial, in which he says, “My friends, we must remember that our rights come from God and not from government.” I wholeheartedly agree, and that’s why he should place the right to life — a right for which America declared independence — above any political philosophy.
*NOTE: What Sen. Thompson appeals to as “federalism” is suspect, as is it not inherently anti-federalist to amend the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is amended by a 2/3 vote of both Houses of Congress, followed by ratification by 3/4 of the state legislatures. If the Constitution is federalism, then working within the bounds of such federalism would hardly be anti-federalist.