In 1856, the Republican Party — the party of Abraham Lincoln — included in its platform a stinging criticism of slavery and polygamy, referring to the two institutions as the "twin relics of barbarism." Slavery was barbaric because it deprived some human beings of their liberty, one of the unalienable rights bestowed on all men, all human beings, by our "Creator," to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Polygamy was barbaric because, as the Supreme Court later recognized, it undermined the concept of marriage, an institution that is necessary for a free society and therefore essential to the consensual government necessary to vindicate the unalienable rights described in the Declaration.
Before the 19th Century closed, America put an end to both relics of barbarism. Yet in their stead two new indicia of barbarism arose during the 20th Century: abortion and homosexuality. The parallel between the new barbarism and the old is uncanny. Abortion is barbaric because it deprives some human beings of a right even more precious than liberty, the right to life itself — the first of the unalienable rights recited in the Declaration of Independence. And homosexuality, like polygamy, has for centuries been thought to undermine the institution of marriage and the civil society that rests on it.
Both of these issues are currently pending before the United States Supreme Court and will be decided this week, perhaps as early as today. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Boy Scouts, a private organization, can be compelled to reinstate as an adult scoutmaster a man who is serving as a leader of the Rutgers Gay and Lesbian Association and who therefore, by word and deed, conveys a position about the immorality of homosexuality that is directly contrary to the Boy Scouts' own views on the subject. If the Court rules against the Boy Scouts, the organization's mission of instilling in young boys their moral obligations to God, country, and family will be severely undermined, with predictably disastrous consequences for a society such as ours that, as our Founders rightly understood, cannot be preserved "but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue."
The Supreme Court also has two cases dealing with abortion that will be decided this week. Hill v. Colorado, which was argued way back in January, involves yet another challenge to the "exception" from the First Amendment's protection of speech that has been made for the speech of abortion protesters. But the case that truly demonstrates the barbarity of abortion is Stenberg v. Carhart, the challenge to Nebraska's ban on partial birth abortions.
Stenberg in particular forces the Court to confront once again the moral foundation of our nation, a foundation upon which rests the truth espoused in the Declaration of Independence that there exist certain fundamental, God-given rights, which cannot be infringed even by majority rule. Both sides in the case make an appeal to that moral foundation. Proponents of abortion argue that a woman's "freedom" to choose abortion is an aspect of the liberty that the Declaration recognized as an unalienable right. Abortion foes, on the other hand, contend that the right to life of the unborn child is the only unalienable right at issue that is consistent with the moral foundation of the Declaration.
It is the Court's job to decide. The difficulty for the Court is that, over the past century, it has largely rejected the philosophical tools that would allow it to make that judgment on any grounds other than its own predilections. The "Nature's God" of the Declaration is today a dead letter in American jurisprudence. Recovery of the original philosophical understanding on which our entire idea of unalienable rights is based is not impossible, however. Indeed, we can be guided by a similar crisis in our political thought that occurred over slavery, and was resolved in the extraordinary debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senatorial campaign in Illinois.
Douglas took what is essentially the pro-choice position, contending that the slave owner's unalienable right to his property was infringed by the act of Congress that forbade him from taking his slaves into free territory. Lincoln's rejoinder was powerful then, and it is powerful now: That would be true, Lincoln countered, if slaves were merely property, like a hog. But if they are men, then Lincoln's ancient faith taught him that they were as entitled to liberty as the next man. The ancient faith to which Lincoln was referring was the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence.
As with slavery, abortion falls under the weight of this moral truth. Abortion would be perfectly acceptable if, but only if, the unborn child was mere property or, as some abortion proponents used to argue, merely an appendage. The unborn child is not merely an appendage, of course, and the facts surrounding partial-birth abortion make that gruesomely clear. It is time for the Court to restore our commitment to our ancient faith, and to put an end to this latter-day relic of barbarism.