Pro-Life vs. Family Values? Is Newsweek’s Jacob Weisberg promoting eugenics?

By Angelo Matera

Posted 9/11/08 at 12:32 PM


The culture war is back, stronger than ever, with the liberal media completely flummoxed over how to handle Sarah Palin. But what’s really thrown them is Bristol Palin’s unwed teen pregnancy, and the Republican Party’s surprisingly warm-hearted, non-judgemental response to it. How else to explain Jacob Weisberg’s bizarre column, “Whatever Happened to Family Values” in the latest Newsweek (a slightly different version is on Slate.com). In the column Weisberg accuses conservative Christians of hypocrisy because—get this—if they were really interested in promoting family values they would allow unwed teen mothers to have abortions.

“Sarah Palin’s pro-life extremism,” he charged, “is as ethically flawed as it is politically damaging to the GOP. By vaunting their pro-life agenda over everything else, conservatives are abandoning one of their most valuable insights: that intact, two-parent families are best for children and for the foundation of a healthy society.” (Note: Weisberg discounts the fact that the father of Bristol’s child will marry her because teen marriages often end in divorce.)

My initial reaction to this reasoning was sadness that someone like Weisberg, the editor of Slate.com, and a Rhodes Scholar, could make such an absurd argument, and have such little understanding of traditional Christian morality. Is it really that hard to understand that there is such a thing as a “hierarchy of values,” or that the commandment not to kill supersedes but doesn’t void the prohibition against sex outside marriage?

What his column also did was confirm the mainstream media’s continuing obliviousness to the “crisis pregnancy” phenomenon: the growth over the last few decades of thousands of Catholic and Christian-inspired support centers that give aid—without judgment or questions asked—to pregnant women in trouble, so they can have their babies. (This phenomenon explains why Christians have embraced the movies Bella and Juno, but more on this in another blog)

But on further reflection I realized there was something more at stake in this argument. Not only was Weisberg taking a harsh stance against single mothers—one usually associated with moralizing conservatives (remember the fuss over Dan Quayle’s so-called denunciation of Murphy Brown’s single parenthood?)—but he was clearly advocating a form of eugenics, or selective breeding through abortion. These are his words:

“By every measure social scientists have devised, those raised by two parents grow up healthier (physically and psychologically), wealthier, and wiser, on average, than those raised by a single parent, divorced parents, or even a parent and a stepparent.”

“Healthier.” “Wealthier.” “Wiser.” In other words, better.

Since Christians are so often slandered by the media over statements taken out of context, I’ll give Weisberg the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t actually favor a policy of eugenics under the guise of “family values.” I’ll assume he wants what Christians want—the best possible family environment for children (on this point, Weisberg parts with those liberals who don’t accept that two parent households are essential to a child’s well-being). But when you encourage the elimination of persons who are born into difficult circumstances, then you’re talking about something else entirely. With abortion (or mercy killing) the killer doesn’t have the well-being of the person in mind, because the person who is killed will no longer exist. You really are talking about a kinder, gentler form of eugenics—the weeding out of the unfortunate, who are declared “unfit,” not out of hatred, but from false compassion.

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor described this sentiment and its implications in her introduction to “A Memoir of Mary Ann.” She wrote that: “In the absence of… faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Blogger Ross Douthat at The Atlantic has taken the lead in rebutting Weisberg, which elicited a pained response from the writer countering Douthat’s “vile” claim that Weisberg believes Bristol Palin should have aborted her child. In his defense, Weisberg says, “I believe that members of the Palin family, like the rest of us, should be able to decide what to do with their bodies themselves.” But what decisions are you favoring when you keep repeating that “teenagers who carry their pregnancies to term drastically diminish their chances of living out the conservative, or the American, dream”; and “the Bristol Palin option doesn’t promote family happiness, stability, or traditional structure.” It’s a cop out to make these loaded statements when you’re discussing the example of Sarah Palin and then step back, with a wink, wink, nod, nod, and say you’re morally neutral.

Weisberg ends his defense by saying, “I don’t advocate abortion for anyone - safe, legal and rare describes my position. I simply recognize that there are moral trade-offs here, and wish intellectually honest conservatives ... would face them more squarely.”

There are sincere pro-choicers who view abortion as a tragic evil that will be driven underground if made illegal. But there are others who are callously motivated by a soft form of Social Darwinism. Jacob Weisberg may not fall into this category, but we can thank him for baring its twisted logic.