In the course of human events, the hot blood of our body politic boils over into catcalls and caterwauling on the way to greater truths. That’s another way of saying the great thing about a democracy, democratically speaking, is that we have a way of resolving issues over time—and sometimes even for the better.
Exhibit A: gun control and the killings at Virginia Tech.
Exhibit B: our Supreme Court’s decision to ban partial-birth abortion.
Absolutists—and you know who you are—will abhor the politics of both gun control and abortion, but I would argue that both issues are being resolved in a wrestling match that actually leans to the center and away from absolutism—and for the greater good.
Guns were banned from the Virginia Tech campus. The student who took 33 lives, including his own, was a South Korean citizen who had obtained his guns legally, according to press reports. He literally went ballistic and no law of the land was going to stop him.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and many conservatives believe the rights delineated in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution are absolute, and that the government has no right to restrict a citizen’s right to bear arms.
But a South Korean citizen? A person with a green card? An illegal immigrant?
The gun lobby will find it difficult to find much sympathy for allowing those who are not citizens to have the right to bear arms, much as they have been hard-pressed to explain why a man in a blind needs an AK-47 to hunt for game.
Nonetheless, the NRA and the gun lobby have effectively won this fight on many, many levels. There are some 200 million guns in circulation in the United States, according to one account, and hunting licenses are not exactly hard to come by. Before the Virginia Tech massacres, liberal politicians mentioned guns at the risk of their own political lives.
Remember the folly of John Kerry in an orange hunting jacket? Or Mitt Romney’s insistence against all odds that he was a hunter—before saying he was nothing of the sort?
The right to own guns is far from absolute, but the NRA can sleep easily at night with a shotgun by the bedstand: nobody’s about to take your gun away. Ain’t going to happen.
Which brings us to the Supreme Court’s ban on partial-birth abortion. The Absolutists on the side of a women’s right to choose consider that right to be absolute—that any woman for any reason could presumably end a pregnancy with impunity at any time.
At the moment of conception and in the days afterward, the argument that what lays beneath the surface of a mother’s skin is not a human being has the force of logic because the life is in no way sustainable. As the days go by—as the clock tocks—the argument loses moral force by the day because the eyes, ears, nose, throat and perhaps even the soul of the fetus begin to take shape. At a certain point, on an uncertain day, the argument that the fetus is not a human being gets tortured to say the least.
Let’s work backwards in this argument to the moment nine months into the pregnancy, right before the labor begins that ends in a birth. Is there any question that a human being is being born? None. Now work your way backwards to eight months, seven months, six, and so on. At what point, at what moment, does the argument lose force? At what point in a pregnancy does the woman’s right to choose give way to a baby’s right to be born.
We can argue this point forever without coming to consensus, but I don’t know anyone who would argue that a mother has the absolute right to abort her child right up to the moment before birth. I think most reasonable people would agree that would be murder—and don’t confuse the issue with those inevitable discussions about saving the life of the mother, because that argument all but acknowledges two lives, and not just one, rest in the balance, thereby establishing that a mother’s right is not absolute.
Once you acknowledge that a moment comes on the continuum where we are talking about one, rather than two human beings—regardless of when that moment begins—than you are admitting a women’s right to choose is absolutely not absolute. And I would argue further that this is a good thing, that a ban on partial-birth abortions, anathema as it may be to most liberals like me, is nonetheless a welcome step away from the very human possibility of barbarity.
At the end of the day, at the end of a pregnancy, neither the right to bear arms nor the right to an abortion is absolute—and that is as it should be in a world where every life counts.