The Politics of Virtue

Is Abortion Debatable?

The Politics of Virtue

Book Pages: 278 Illustrations: Published: May 1993

Activism, Law, Theory and Philosophy

Fiercely committed to the separation of church and state, thoroughly pluralistic, largely secular: Where does a society like ours find common terms for conducting a moral debate? In view of the crises surrounding the issue of abortion, it is tempting to answer: nowhere. In this timely and provocative book, Elizabeth Mensch and Alan Freeman urge that we challenge the extremes of both the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" views of the abortion issue and affirm the moral integrity of compromise. Attempting to restore a level of complexity to the discussion and to enrich public debate so that we may move beyond our current impasse, the authors argue that it is essential to understand how issues of legal "rights" and theological concerns interact in American public debate.
Returning to the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, Mensch and Freeman detail the role of religion and its relationship to the emerging politics of abortion. Discussing primarily the natural law tradition associated with Catholicism and the Protestant ethical tradition, the authors focus most sharply on the 1960s in which the present terms of the abortion debate were set. In a skillful analysis, they identify a variety of factors that directed and shaped the debate--including, among others, the haunting legacy of Nazism, the moral challenge of the civil rights movement, the "God is dead" discourse, school prayer and Bible reading, Harvey Cox's The Secular City, the Berrigans and Vietnam, the animal rights movement, and the movement of the church-going population away from mainstream Protestant tradition toward evangelical fundamentalism. By criticizing the rhetoric employed by both the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" camps, Mensch and Freeman reveal the extent to which forces on either side of the issue have failed to respond to relevant concerns. Since Roe v. Wade, the authors charge, public debate has seemed to concede the moral high ground to the "pro-life" position, while the "pro-choice" rhetoric has appeared to defend an individual's legal right to do moral wrong. Originally published as a special issue of The Georgia Law Review (Spring 1991), this revised and expanded edition will be welcomed by all those frustrated by the impasse of debates so central to our nation's moral life.


"Mensch and Freeman do the impossible or the seemingly impossible: they bring fresh insights to the abortion debate. . . . If we are to have an authentic, civil debate on abortion—let alone a whole range of other weighty and volatile matters—it is books such as this that will lead the way." — Jean Bethke Elshtain , Commonweal

"[Mensch and Freeman's] analysis helps me to understand my dissatisfaction with the way the issue of abortion has been posed and my inability to agree with either side. Their book gives me great cheer and hope." — Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism and The True and Only Heaven

"Mensch and Freeman have done pathbreaking work on the modern history of the abortion debate before Roe v. Wade was decided. Their work challenges the reader to see common ground that has become forgotten in our recent abortion rhetoric. This book should be required reading in our schools and legislatures in order to inspire us to develop a good faith dialogue on abortion. . . It is a book that I will turn to often in order to keep me focused on a constructive path in the abortion wars." — Ruth Colker, author of Abortion and Dialogue

"This book presents a strikingly original voice within legal scholarship and is sure to spark vigorous debate. Its originality lies in its ready concession to the pro-life side that abortion is a life-or-death issue, followed by its argument that this concession does not end the argument about what the proper role of abortion should be. Their use of theological reflection to explore the notion that abortion is sometimes justified despite the fact that 'it stops a human heart' is subtle and courageous. It seeks to relocate the current abortion discussion onto a terrain that has potential for a less divisive resolution of the issue." — Joan Williams, American University Law School


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Elizabeth Mensch is Professor of Law at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

At the time of his death in 1995, Alan Freeman was also Professor of Law at the State University of New York, Buffalo. The authors are contributors to The Politics of Law, Animal Experimentation, and The Tikkun Anthology, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution and editors of a two-volume anthology of essays Property Law.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1349-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1331-1
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