From Magic City Morning Star

Guest Column
Understanding the Paleoconservative Perspective on Life
By Dan E. Phillips
Nov 8, 2006 - 12:41:00 PM

During my years of reading paleoconservative books and magazines and visiting paleoconservative websites, it became obvious to me that paleocons are very critical of the modern pro-life movement. Since paleocons are almost universally pro-life, this criticism always baffled me. Because many paleocons “convert” to that orientation from more “mainstream” conservatism, as I did, I suspect I am not the only one who has been troubled by this. But as I have studied the paleoconservative perspective and begun to understand it, as it has become more second nature to me, I believe I now better appreciate the paleo criticism. Perhaps my intellectual journey can help enlighten others.

First, let me make it absolutely clear that I believe the pro-life movement has the noblest intentions of any movement in politics. Most interest groups, whether right or wrong, are ultimately in it for some sort of self-interest. Farmers lobby for continued and increased farm subsidies. Businesses lobby for favorable tax and regulatory policy. Pensioners lobby to maintain and increase benefits, but pro-life activists have no personal stake in saving the unborn. They are not in it for their own sake but for the sake of a voiceless other. Anti-religion (especially anti-Christian) bigots who claim pro-lifers are in it to “keep women down” or “cram their religion down other people’s throats” hardly merit a rebuttal. Even liberals who disagree should acknowledge the noble motives of pro-lifers.

(Now that I started off with high praise, you can hear the “but” coming.) But despite their high ideals and pure motives, the pro-lifers have really made very little political progress. On the one hand, they have done a very good job of getting “pro-life” politicians elected. They played a significant role in the 1994 “Republican Revolution” and in President Bush’s re-election in 2004. They have managed to keep the pro-life plank a part of the Republican Platform despite significant agitation from powerful and wealthy forces that would like to see it removed. It is generally assumed that serious Republican candidates for President must be at least nominally pro-life as a condition of entry. (We will see if Rudy Giuliani tests that assumption in 2008.) Candidates focused on reversing the GOP position on life, such as Arlen Specter, have faired very poorly.

On the other hand, despite the fact that pro-life forces are an integral part of the winning Republican coalition, they are clearly expected to keep a low public profile. The best illustration of this is the last two National Conventions where the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Colin Powell took center stage and prominent pro-lifers were persona non grata, at least in prime time.

In the key area of policy, what have all these years of hard political footwork accomplished? One of the few gains was the initial institution of Reagan’s Mexico City policy and its re-institution by Bush II after Clinton had overturned it. (For those unfamiliar with the policy, it barred taxpayer dollars from funding organizations that promote abortion overseas.) Another gain is the Partial Birth Abortion ban, which while well intentioned, will arguably not stop any abortion even if it passes muster with the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, the Crown Jewel for pro-life activists, is likely no closer to actually overturning Roe vs. Wade, thanks in part to Republican appointees like Kennedy and Souter. (If pro-lifers spent as much time and energy debunking the erroneous and malicious doctrine of judicial review as they do worrying about Supreme Court nominees, a worry that signals uncritical acceptance of and helps perpetuate that erroneous doctrine, then the GOP wouldn’t have the Supreme Court trump card to play every four years. But that is an argument for another day.)

Pro-life forces have made some gains outside the policy arena. The movement has contributed to the establishment of abortion alternative centers in many cities. It has made abortion less socially acceptable and has socially stigmatized clinics and doctors who provide abortions. The pro-choice advocates recognize this. Note the recent initiative of Ms. Magazine to encourage celebrities who have had an abortion to go public. The total number of abortions per year, while still staggering, is down. Some of the decrease is related to demographic factors, but some of the decrease is surely due to the increased unease with abortion that pro-life voices have fostered.

One obvious potential explanation for their minimal policy gains is that pro-life activists are employing an ineffective political strategy. This is one reason why paleocons are critical of the pro-lifers. Pro-lifers hitched their wagon to the modern, GOP-centric, “conservative movement,” that is hostile to paleoconservatism. In the minds of some paleocons, that makes the pro-lifers part of the problem, not part of the solution. I would not go that far. Despite the objection of some, the “Religious Right” and paleos are natural allies in the battle against modernism. However, it at least deserves consideration that the pro-life movement’s close ties to the “conservative movement” and hence the GOP has not served the cause well.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss potential alternative paleoconservative political strategies to limit abortions, but they would certainly involve more local and state level activism. The recently passed South Dakota abortion ban is a good example. As I alluded to above, relentlessly challenging the unconstitutional doctrine of judicial review is also a must.

However, the primary objection of the paleos to the pro-life movement (not the cause of life but the political movement, mind you) is philosophical, not practical. While paleos are often distinguished by their opposition to foreign intervention, immigration, and free trade, what really sets them apart from other conservatives is much deeper than just policy. They differ on significant underlying philosophical presumptions. One helpful way of looking at this difference is to ask where paleoconservatives draw the “its all been down hill since then” or alternatively the “those were the good ol’ days” line in the historical sand. Paleos generally reject the Enlightenment in whole or in part. They reject Lockean “contract theory” and the concept of “natural rights” out right. Dr. Donald Livingston, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, calls natural rights a “philosophical superstition.” According to Dr. Livingston:

It was to secure these rights that the modern state was invented in the first place, and it is impossible, especially for Americans, not to be seduced by the doctrine. But it is nonetheless a philosophical superstition.

The reason is this. Whatever they might be, natural rights are universal and apply to all men. Further, they are known by reason, independent of any inherited moral tradition… It follows, therefore, that the doctrine of natural rights must be in a condition of permanent hostility to all inherited moral traditions. Any such tradition, no matter how noble the goods of excellence cultivated in it, can always be seen as violating someone’s natural rights under some interpretation or another.

So according to the paleoconservative critique, there is no end to the havoc that can be wrought on traditional society by advocates attempting to secure their natural rights, in this case a woman’s “right” to an abortion.

In this light it is easy to see the philosophical problem that paleos have with the pro-life movement as it is currently constituted. The movement is rhetorically based almost entirely upon the claim of a natural right to life and the related claim of the “personhood” of the unborn child. But the problem is that the pro-choice side is based equally entirely on a competing claim of a natural right to “choice,” or a natural right of a woman to “control her own body,” or a natural right to “privacy,” or whatever.

Few Americans, paleo or otherwise, would object in the abstract to all of these rights claims. People born or unborn being allowed to live is generally (war, capital cases) not objectionable, nor is the right to choose your cell phone plan, or the right of a woman to control her own body regarding whether to take an aspirin. But the rights must always have a context and a background and hence are neither “natural” nor “universal.”

With the current abortion debate, it comes down to which rights claim takes precedence. As the debate is framed today, we essentially have two Enlightenment liberals arguing about the priority of each others rights claim.

For the pro-lifer the right to life of the unborn child is more important even though they will concede a circumscribed right to choose. For the pro-choice advocate, the right of the expectant mother to choose takes precedence even though they would certainly concede a right to life of a healthy infant, a child, or an adult. In fact, they often accuse pro-lifers of forgetting about the child after he is born. This they do in service of their liberal aim of securing some natural right to healthcare, affordable daycare, adequate housing, etc. for the child. (Do you see the unlimited possibility for mischief here?)

Is it any wonder given the nature of the debate that pro-life forces have made little headway? Both sides are arguing natural rights claims hung on thin air, as is always the case with rights claims disconnected from the historical circumstances from which the right arose.

At this point pro-lifers might object that they hang their right to life claim not on thin air but on God as expressed in, for example, one of America’s organic documents, the Declaration of Independence. Putting aside for the moment the debate over how corrupted the Declaration was by Enlightenment sympathies and idiom, this is a start. It is certainly an improvement over grounding your rights claims on human reason as the French did in their Revolution shortly after our Declaration. However, if you are going to invoke God, in this context the God of Christianity, then why not just invoke His prohibition against murder or His command to care for your family? Many well meaning but misguided pro-life advocates intentionally steer clear of religious and theological arguments in favor of purely philosophical or scientific (establishing personhood) arguments. Perhaps they think it sells better. Perhaps they are right. But it is no coincidence that the vast majority of pro-life activists are very religious and few arrive at their conviction based solely on philosophy.

Paleocons believe the debate should focus on obligations and virtue. As Dr. Livingston laments, “ …public moral discourse today is the discourse of rights and seldom ever the discourse of virtue.” The primary justification for objecting to abortion is then not that the unborn baby has a right to life, but that parents have an affirmative obligation to their own children which would, of course, include not killing them.

As I alluded to above, what is really the difference between claiming a child has a right to life and stating it is wrong to murder? None really. So why burden the argument by invoking an inherently liberal concept of rights?

Not only is it wrong to murder, it is particularly wrong to kill your own child. This is intuitive. Only the most rigorous universalist would dispute it. In fact, one appeal of the paleo position is that it is intuitive and conforms to common sense whereas Enlightenment views require elaborate theorizing. Paleos believe the Enlightenment and the concept of universal rights that it engendered was a revolt against the received wisdom of the ages. An essential part of every civilized society is expectations of certain behaviors (i.e. mothers care for their babies) and prohibitions against others (i.e. incest). As Dr. Thomas Fleming pointed out in the Politics of Human Nature, different cultures have produced various forms of family association, but the one universal element of every human society is the mother/child bond. Outside the context of abortion, no one generally disputes this.

Almost everyone recognizes that people have a greater obligation to those closest to them, especially family. For example, we recognize that it is worse for an ungrateful son to strike his father than it is for him to strike a stranger. Parents have a greater obligation to provide food, clothing, shelter, and education for their own child than for the child of a stranger.

In some cases the law can enforce this obligation. Parents are not at liberty to just abandon or “take care of” their “unwanted” or “inconvenient” child. The father can be held financially liable for his child if paternity is established. Parents are required to meet the basic needs of their child least they be charged with neglect. In the eyes of the law and in the estimation of society, this parent/child bond and obligation is NOT VOLUNTARY. It is a duty. So in the case of abortion, on what grounds does this bond and obligation become a matter of choice when the child is in the womb?

This obligation extends beyond first-degree relatives. If both parents pass away, the aunts, uncles, and grandparents have a greater obligation to then care for the orphaned children than does a stranger or more realistically, the State. Furthermore, this obligation exists even if the timing is bad or the circumstances or means of the family member are not optimal. The law may not be able to force this relationship, although it is generally the default chain of guardianship, but society does, or at least should, condemn the family members who refuse to step up, if physically and mentally able, because it might interfere with their plans or careers or lifestyles. Again, this familial obligation is not voluntary. It is a moral responsibility. In the case of abortion, we are asking less of the parents of an unborn child than we are of the extended family of an orphan. On what grounds?

Even this is probably too legalistic and reductionistic a view. Society has special contempt for the father or mother who kills his or her own children. Witness the media circus surrounding the Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, and Scott Peterson cases. More recently the Melinda and Trenton Duckett case captured the nation’s attention. People intuitively recognize that the bond between parent and child and child and parent is not just a bond of duty and obligation. It is an emotional attachment of love. That is why we are so disgusted by cases of filicide.

The mother and father have an emotional bond with the “wanted” and “planned” unborn child. Note the grief that usually accompanies a miscarriage. But we are supposed to expect less of the parents if the child is “unwanted” or “unplanned?” Not too long ago, if an “unplanned” pregnancy happened out of wedlock, the father was expected to “do the right thing” and make an “honest woman” out of the expectant mother. If the father was reluctant a shotgun often persuaded him. Notice how the language, “do the right thing” and “honest woman,” reflects the culturally established expected course of action.

Given the fondness with which modern American society greats talk of rights and the hostility with which it views obligations that impose on the individual, the pro-life movement could plead that it is strategically wiser to argue rights. That despite the few real policy gains the movement has managed, it would be worse off if it adopted the paleoconservative line of argument and abandoned rights talk.

Perhaps this is true. But it is also clear that the Enlightenment inspired modern theory of rights and its focus on the atomistic individual has greatly contributed to creating a culture that is so hostile to the traditional view of the family and the community in the first place. It is only in an individual obsessed culture where the idea of an “unwanted” and “inconvenient” child (a counterintuitive idea if you really think about it) could arise and flourish.

By adopting the liberal rhetoric of rights and the individual, the pro-life movement has made a pact with the Devil. A more genuinely conservative and traditional view of society, the result of which would be a greater respect for the natural bonds and obligations of family, can best be fostered by abandoning liberal rhetoric, no matter how appealing to moderns, and embracing with paleoconservatives a more thorough rejection of modernism.

Devout Catholics and Evangelical and Reformed Protestants, who make up the vast majority of pro-life foot soldiers, have rejected modernist moral relativism to a much greater degree than the rest of the culture. That is why they are so despised by the left. Now it is time they re-examine their commitment to modernist philosophical presuppositions as well.

Dr. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. He is a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. His e-mail address is

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