During the scramble for victory in Republican primaries, one of the most oft-repeated assurances each candidate attempts to make is their commitment to pro-life principles. Leaving aside a few socially liberal Northeast states, most Republican races consist of candidates offering reassurances that they will stand by these convictions and take steps to implement them once in office. While the track record is spotty at best when it comes to making progress in this department, it certainly is an issue that any candidate seeking to distinguish themselves as a conservative attempts to set the record straight on.
And this is admirable rhetoric. Protecting defenseless life is one of the few primary justifications for the institution of government, so a worldview that seeks limits on abortion does not conflict with a firm belief in smaller government. Though there could be a robust debate over whether this should be handled at the state level as many murder cases are, or at the federal level by way of constitutional amendment, seeking ways to curb abortion is nothing to be scoffed at. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed 50% of Americans describe their views as pro-choice, so this remains a touchy and divisive issue which ends up falling largely along party lines.
With the trend of evangelical Protestants joining the Republican party that began as a trickle in the 1970s before morphing into a full blown stampede in the 1980s, social issues like abortion became much more of a deal breaker within the party. This cycle became complete in 2008 when John McCain received upwards of 80% of the evangelical vote in many states, a percentage crossing north of 90% in some. And considering most of these voters are salt of the earth, hard working, church-going individuals, dissecting their voting patterns is vital to seeing where the heartbeat of America is during any given election period.
But there is a subtle danger posed when being pro-life is seen as the primary distinguishing trait of a conservative candidate. For example, if an issue such as abortion becomes the sole reason a conservative votes the way they do, this opens up the sorts of opportunities seized by Southern Democrats like Gene Taylor, Dan Boren, Heath Schuler, and Chet Edwards through the years. If it becomes the sole focus, traditional conservative values like constitutionalism and governmental restraint can become secondary, if not outright ignored.
It can also work for fiscally liberal Republicans who actually possess little commitment to smaller government, as demonstrated by the presidency of George W. Bush. No matter how much federal spending and entitlements expanded, defense of his alleged conservatism would always center around the claim of “well, but he is pro-life.” The fact that nothing ever gets done on this issue no matter the makeup of Congress might lead perceptive observers to wonder if it is little more than a political football, something Republicans running for office can always tease voters with. “Just re-elect us one more time, and we will close those abortion clinics once and for all” is seen as sufficient bait to maintain political power.
If it holds true that being pro-life translates into a more broad based commitment to limited, decentralized government, then looking at the relative economic freedom of countries with more restrictive abortion laws should reflect this. But these two are not necessarily synonymous. Venezuela, a country ruled by the iron-fisted Hugo Chavez and which grants its citizens minimal economic liberty, also happens to heavily curb access to abortions. Though its Catholic leanings influence this, it shows no correlation between views on social issues like abortion and those held regarding economics. Further evidence that a country’s willingness to curb abortion access is entirely unrelated to opening up other freedoms for its inhabitants is present. Chile, Mexico, El Salvador, and Argentina boast some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, but according to the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom rankings published by the Heritage Foundation, these countries were 11th, 48th, 68th, and 138th respectively.
This is not to say that individuals can hold pro-life views while subsequently desiring governmental non-interference in the economic sphere. The majority of conservatives certainly hold to these convictions simultaneously. But neither necessarily dovetails with the other, something many libertarians are quick to point out. Strongly desiring to legislate against aggressive action towards an unborn child is a worthy devotion to have, but confusing this for a well-rounded conservative philosophy can cause confusion. Labeling this candidate or that “staunchly conservative” based merely on a laudable pro-life stance can lead to the election of officeholders that hold little else in common with their constituents aside from this one position.
As evidenced by the economic freedom of nations like El Salvador and Argentina, one could have a full blown statist orientation while accordingly holding pro-life views. Conservatives must be more cognizant of this next time they go to the ballot box to act on the empty words of a cynical politician. Blind faith that platitudes promising to protect the liberty of the unborn will somehow translate into the guarding of the freedom of the born has proven to be unfounded.