The failed House vote on the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) mostly fell along party lines, with only a handful of Republicans voting with the Democrats to reject the bill. While some of them surely did so because they’re unscrupulous political cowards, at least one congressman is defending his vote as the principled pro-life decision.
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash has released a statement affirming his allegiance to the pro-life cause yet insisting that this bill was the wrong way to go about it; in fact, he’s “appalled and outraged” that Republicans “would take an issue as sacred as life and use it so cynically as a political weapon”:
Republicans, and especially conservatives, should oppose abortion. Period. H R 3541 criminalizes the MOTIVE for getting an abortion. In other words, it keeps all abortions legal except those obtained for the “wrong” reasons. But ALL abortions are wrong. And criminalizing motive makes this simply another hate crime. Literally the only difference between a legal and an illegal abortion under the bill is whether the “abortion is sought based on the sex or gender of the child.”
If nothing else, Rep. Amash’s intentions deserve the benefit of the doubt – as he points out, he has voted for, authored, and cosponsored numerous pieces of solid pro-life legislation. Amash has not disputed the value of the unborn or the urgency of protecting them, but he has raised a legitimate question about what other principles should limit pro-life efforts.
As a conservative, I sympathize with the roots of Amash’s objection: I want laws to regulate actions, not thoughts, and I don’t want to send the message that abortions not motivated by sexism are any more tolerable than ones that are. But ultimately, I think his decision to oppose the law is mistaken for two reasons.
First, his comparison to hate crime legislation – laws that increase the penalty for a crime if it was motivated by the victim’s race, orientation, sex, religion, etc. – isn’t entirely accurate. One of the reasons hate crime laws are so ridiculous is because the offenses they regulate are already illegal. Regardless of whether Smith kills Jones because Jones was black or because Jones had money, Smith will still go to jail for a long time for the deed.
PRENDA, by contrast, sought to end a discriminatory practice that currently is legal, by establishing that gender is not an acceptable basis for depriving someone of her right to life. In this respect, it would be more akin to the constitutional amendments guaranteeing that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race or sex.
Second, Amash fails to recognize something we’ve discussed before: that perfect theoretical purity isn’t always the highest good statesmen should pursue. In this case, protecting the rights of whomever we can at the moment is a higher concern. Yes, theoretically we should just ban abortion outright, rather than piecemeal protections for this or that subset of babies on the basis of gender, development, etc. But that option, not currently being on the table, is no argument against trying for more modest goals that are within short-term reach.
I believe that the Fourteenth Amendment’s federal guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” gives Congress sufficient authority to forbid abortion, making PRENDA a perfectly legitimate pro-life tool from a constitutional conservative perspective. Admittedly, PRENDA wouldn’t have achieved full equal protection because it forbade only some abortions, but it would have moved the law in the right direction. Further, the national debate over the bill reminded America that the unborn have human characteristics like gender, which can only help in the long term.
Even to save babies, the ends don’t justify all possible means. Pro-lifers have a moral duty to limit themselves to moral, civil, and constitutional means to achieve our goals, and we need leaders willing to subject us to such scrutiny. But in asking the right questions, Rep. Justin Amash ultimately came to the wrong answer. He should have voted yes on PRENDA.