The forty-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade was on Tuesday. With all the cliched left-right posturing that the abortion controversy engendered, it is instructive to read the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet’s thoughts on the subject. Nisbet was one of the leading conservative intellectuals of the last century and most famously argued that the decline of traditional community was responsible for the rise of paternalistic statism.
But on abortion, he defied the left-right cliches, and took a decidedly pro-choice position:
The contemporary preoccupation with abortion has its roots in the late nineteenth century, a period of many moral preoccupations and of causes to advance them. Although abortion had been a sin in the Christian church from early on, it had taken its place with a large number of other sins. Now, however, abortion became the centerpiece of a moralistic crusade. So did a good many other matters, including alcohol, tobacco, premarital sex, masturbation, meat eating, narcotics, Sunday saloon openings, and Sunday baseball. . . Never have so many laws been passed, first by the states, then the federal government, prohibiting so many actions which for thousands of years had generally been held to fall under family authority. It can be fairly argued that the present infirm state of the family in Western society is the consequence as much of moralistic laws assertedly designed to protect individual members of the family from one evil or another as it is of anything else. Current efforts to prohibit abortion categorically and absolutely might be viewed in this light. It is not so much the “woman’s right to choose” that is being assaulted as it is the ethic of family and its legitimate domain.
Nisbet attacks Roe v. Wade as the centralized government interfering with local communities, but continues:
[In the abortion crusades, on both sides, f]orces of total good are arrayed against total evil, the sure sign of a dogma encased in the struggle for absolute power. . . . But repugnant as this whole spectacle is, it does not present the danger to the social fabric and to individual liberty that is posed by the ranks of the aggressive antiabortionists. In denying the right of the woman or her family to terminate pregnancy, these soldiers of righteousness strike at the very heart of both family and individual rights.