Mayor Giuliani and Abortion

John C. Chalberg

June 1, 2007

The 2008 presidential election may still be a long way off, but we are already well into the debating season. A recent such conclave among Republican presidential hopefuls generated an interesting exchange on the related matters of abortion and slavery. That same exchange posed a difficult and ongoing problem for one candidate in particular. That candidate would be Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who tells us that he is personally opposed to abortion, but defends a woman’s right to choose. A former governor of a southern state asked the former mayor how he differs from pre-Civil War southerners (and northerners) who were personally opposed to slavery, but defended a slaveholder’s right to choose (to own a slave).

Hoping to maintain the façade of being most things to most people on this most divisive issue, the former mayor did what he could to duck the question. Of course, he harrumphed, no one today defends slavery. And, of course, that was not the governor’s point.

Will the former mayor succeed with his fence-straddling and question ducking? It’s not likely. To be sure, 2008 is not 1860. The country is not on the verge of splitting apart—despite what some on each end of the political spectrum might worry about or hope for. The abortion question in 2008, while crucial, is not of the magnitude of the slave question, circa 1860, in part because the country today is not divided geographically between prolife and prochoice regions. But abortion is an issue of critical importance, both to the country at large and especially to the base of each party.

The likelihood that the Democrats will nominate a prolife candidate is nil. For that matter, the eventual Democratic nominee will probably not be as open and forthright as the former mayor in expressing his or her “personal opposition” to abortion.

By the same token, the chance that the Republican nominee in 2008 will be as candidly prochoice as the former mayor is also pretty much nil. What’s even less likely is that that this nominee will take the stand that the former mayor is currently taking. What that stand amounts to is this: I find abortion to be highly questionable, perhaps even immoral; I could not in good conscience ever imagine agreeing to such an act. But I will defend the right of a woman and her doctor to commit this act; and I will not criticize or seek to reverse the Supreme Court decision that sanctions it.

Here the analogy with the slave issue looms large. And here the fence straddling of the former mayor becomes even more problematic. Let’s jump back to the 1860 election and the efforts of the leading fence-straddler in that campaign. Who might that be? Some might point to Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to slavery, but not an abolitionist. Lincoln had long declared that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” And yet the best he could offer, politically speaking, was “free soil” or a ban on slave expansion in the hope that this would put slavery on the road to “ultimate extinction.” Still, the free soil line was a tough line. Certainly, few southerners saw free soilers as compromisers. When Lincoln, the free soiler, was elected in 1860, southern states began to leave the Union.

If there was a major party candidate who was a compromiser in 1860, it was not Lincoln, but his great rival, Senator Stephen Douglas, whose doctrine of popular sovereignty would leave the matter of slave expansion up to a vote in each new territory as it applied for statehood, but would not touch slavery where it already existed. In other words, Douglas refused to take the stand that Lincoln had taken years earlier. He refused to see slavery as a moral issue, and he refused to stake out a moral position on the “peculiar institution.”

In their historic debates of 1858, challenger Lincoln kept after Senator Douglas on this very point, reminding listeners of Douglas’ failure to condemn slavery. “Judge Douglas,” he repeatedly parried, was content to stand back and simply let slavery be voted “up or down.”

In a sense, “Judge” Douglas’ fence-straddling of the 1850s was somewhat more admirable—or at least more consistent—than is the mayor’s. To Douglas, slavery was not necessarily right or wrong; therefore, the voters ought to decide its fate. To the mayor, abortion apparently is wrong and the taking of a human life. Therefore, what? Therefore, let each pregnant woman decide the fate of that life. In other words, he isn’t willing to take even the minimal step that Douglas took. He isn’t even willing to let the people decide.

When asked if Roe v. Wade should be overturned, the mayor has demurred (which is simply a fancier word than straddled). When he has been asked if the United States would be a better country without Roe, he has continued to demur. Popular sovereignty on the abortion question would surely be an improvement over court-sanctioned abortion. But the former mayor won’t even go that far. Popular sovereignty was an improvement over the other candidate for “most egregious court decision in American history,” namely the Dred Scott decision, and Stephen Douglas did go that far—despite his refusal to take a moral stand against slavery.

Lincoln, of course, went further. He condemned both the institution of slavery that threatened the fabric and the future of the country, as well as the Dred Scott decision that threatened to expand the reach of slavery and make it permanent. For worse and better, there was at least an element of consistency to the stand of each Illinois politician. By the same token, there is consistency in the current stand of a prochoice, pro-Roe v. Wade Democrat, who is at best morally neutral on the matter of abortion and at worst of a mind to see it as a moral (dare it be said, positive) good. Just as there is consistency in the position of a prolife, anti-Roe Republican, who regards abortion as immoral and desires to set it on the road to ultimate extinction. But there is no consistency at all to the former mayor’s attempt to be enough things to enough people first to win the Republican nomination on the way to taking the White House. There is no coherence either.

Senator Douglas’ fence-straddling on the issue of his day got him part way to his goal. He won the northern half of his party’s nomination only to be defeated by Lincoln at the polls and trounced in the electoral college. That ought to be lesson enough for the former mayor.

In Douglas’ defense, he was trying to be a national candidate without alienating his party’s southern base. After all, by 1860 the Democratic Party was essentially a southern party. Douglas’ tactic failed, but there was at least a certain logic—and consistency—to his attempt.

Giuliani, on the other hand, seems intent on antagonizing his base. It’s a recipe for political disaster for an otherwise (mostly) worthy candidate. Ironically, Giuliani has an option available to him, an option that would help him avoid such a disaster. He could take a page from Stephen Douglas and become the popular sovereignty candidate. In doing so, he could, with double irony, transform himself into a semblance of the Lincoln of this race. He could declare abortion a moral wrong and call for a popular sovereignty solution.

Nearly a century and a half ago, popular sovereignty was for wafflers, while free soil was the position adopted by those who opposed slavery and the key Supreme Court decision that supported it, and who regarded the “peculiar institution” as a moral wrong and hoped to set it one the road to ultimate extinction. Today a call for popular sovereignty on the abortion question could be the ticket for those who oppose abortion and the key Supreme Court decision that supports it, and who see it as a moral wrong deserving of being put on the road to ultimate extinction.

Rudy Giuliani has come part way along this road. But he needs to make his way a good deal further. He also needs to discover the path of consistency, not to mention its virtue. Along the way, he might discover the best of Lincoln and Douglas. By combining Lincoln’s personal hostility toward abortion and Douglas’ willingness to let the people decide such a grave issue, he may yet avoid the fate of the latter and achieve the success of the former, thus making it possible for him, one day, to be known as something other than the former mayor of New York.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota and can be reached at