April 13, 2024

Is Abortion Just a States’ Issue?

Some issues are bigger than a mere commitment to federalism.

By Jared Bridges

Abortion is back as a presidential campaign issue. While it never really went away, this week’s ruling of the Arizona Supreme Court, along with former President Donald Trump’s comments on his position on abortion, has propelled the mainstream media into daily — if not hourly — coverage of the abortion issue, and how it will affect the 2024 campaign. Trump said that his position on abortion is that its legality should be left up to the states, and that it shouldn’t be in the realm of the federal government. Democrats and even some Republicans have decried the Arizona decision to revert to its previous laws protecting life that were on the books before Roe v. Wade took effect.

For the media, abortion is the wedge issue supreme and will give them fodder for animated discussion all the way through November. For pro-abortion activists, and the Democratic Party alike, this is an opportunity to motivate their electoral base to action in light of an incumbent president who is drooping in the polls. For pro-lifers, this is an opportunity for real change in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision ending the decades of violence brought about by Roe v. Wade.

But an issue like this isn’t unique in American history.

Two U.S. Senate candidates debated a similar hot-button issue in 1858 Illinois. One was the incumbent Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas. His opponent was a Republican attorney named Abraham Lincoln. In what would become known as the “Lincoln-Douglas debates” (in which Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech), a primary topic became the expansion of slavery into the U.S. territories. Douglas argued for the application of a doctrine called “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 in the Missouri Compromise.

Lincoln lost that election, but as we all know, went on to become the first Republican president. While in that office, Lincoln’s views on the slavery issue evolved even further. Lincoln took federal action on slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation and supported the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — a federal ban on slavery — which was ratified shortly after his assassination. Lincoln came to see slavery as an issue which should see repudiation from all spheres — not just an individual state’s decision.

We would be hard-pressed to find any Democrat or Republican in the Unites States today who would say that individual states should be the final decision in deciding whether or not slavery should be legal. There will always be exceptions, but both parties know that it would be political suicide to take such a position. It’s because the issue itself supersedes the mere category of state or federal legislation. It’s a moral issue, and it’s inviolate. To relegate slavery to the level of mere local laws would undermine the very fabric of our nation. Our predecessors saw that slavery was doing just that in 1865 and wisely corrected it with the 13th Amendment. The addition of a constitutional amendment at the national level rightly underscored what was correctly enacted in many states at the state level. Americans don’t vote anymore on slavery, but it was necessary to take government action to reach that goal.

When it comes to the issue of abortion, Republicans have — at least until recently — taken a more transcendent view on the value of the unborn life. Their latest platform states:

“The Constitution’s guarantee that no one can ‘be deprived of life, liberty or property’ deliberately echoes the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that ‘all’ are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with the inalienable right to life. Accordingly, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth.”

It remains to be seen how far Republicans have or will veer from this 2016 statement of party principle. During his administration, Trump advanced pro-life policies at a rate unseen in many previous administrations. Judging from Trump’s actions and from the Republican platform, abortion isn’t just an issue for the states.

For the Democrats, it’s clear that they do not view the protection of unborn life as a moral imperative. Their latest platform contains the phrase, “We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.” It’s safe to say that we won’t find Democratic spokespersons arguing for states’ rights on the issue of abortion — in fact, President Biden has stated a goal to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law. He posted on X this week, “Donald Trump is the reason Roe v. Wade has ended. If you reelect me and @KamalaHarris, we’ll be the reason it’s restored.” For the Democrats, abortion isn’t just an issue for the states.

The issue of slavery has shown us that, in the eyes of both political parties, some issues are bigger than a mere commitment to federalism. And with abortion, it’s clear that political expediency, rather than a staunch commitment to federalism, may be the operative factor for those making this appeal. Human lives aren’t fearfully and wonderfully legislated at the state level, they are fearfully and wonderfully made. We should treat them as such at all levels of government.

Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.

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