Abortion and The Role of Government

I really don’t think you care what I think about abortion and, for the most part, I’m ok with that. Most likely, either you think it is a morally neutral medical procedure and every woman’s natural right, or you think it’s murder, straight up. It is, ah, unlikely that a blog post is going to convince you to change positions.

Even so, I might be able to convince you to rethink the role of government as regards abortion and other matters of widespread and profound disagreement.


I recently had a conversation with someone who is terribly afraid that the new Administration will defund Planned Parenthood. I told her that I think that the government should defund Planned Parenthood – for the exact same reason, ironically, that I wouldn’t support an outright abortion ban; I also told her that even though I don’t think that abortion should be banned, I despise Roe v Wade. These seemingly contradictory positions stem from my conception of the proper role of government.


Let’s assume for the sake of argument that half the population takes one view with regard to the morality of abortion, and half the other. Each side is firmly convinced of the rightness of its position. Each side wants to impose its view on the other through the agency of government, which enforces its edicts, ultimately, with loaded guns and threats of imprisonment.

I submit that where no true consensus exists on an issue of morality, looking for the government to enforce the views of half the population on the other half is a terrible mistake.

By this standard, it is just as wrong to force somebody who fervently believes that abortion is murder to pay for it through taxation as it is to forbid somebody from getting an abortion who equally fervently believes that it is her right to do so. Both actions feel deeply unjust to those on whom they are imposed without even the justification that they at least represent the will of a large majority of his or her fellow-citizens.


In Roe v Wade the Supreme Court invented a new “right” out of whole cloth, thereby subverting the democratic process. There is an established process for amending the Constitution, and it requires the assent of 2/3rds of Congress and of the States, thus ensuring that a consensus of opinion on the relevant matter exists before new rights are enshrined in the Constitution. By effectively amending the Constitution by judicial fiat, five justices imposed their wills on the public without the public’s consent. This action set a terrible, anti-democratic precedent. If five of nine justices can give, they can also take away.

We are supposed to have the unfettered ability to make our own laws through Congress or the States, except those laws that are proscribed by clearly defined, properly enacted Constitutional rights, but – and this is the most important point of this post – we should also have the wisdom to know when to refrain from doing so.


By taking the position that government should stay out of the forbidding-or-paying-for-abortion business until a consensus exists, I am not suggesting that either side stand down from the debates about the ethics of abortion. Both sides, clearly, see their positions as embodying moral imperatives; they must advocate for them.

And well they should: consensuses do evolve. At the time of the formation of this country, women didn’t have the right to vote. Over time, those who found that situation morally repugnant won their argument – decisively. Eventually, the laws – and the Constitution – were changed to reflect this new consensus through established democratic processes.

Unfortunately, though, Roe poisoned the already-intense political debate about abortion in this country by preventing incremental, consensus-based changes in the law.

I might add that while I do not believe that there is anything like a consensus among the public that abortion should be wholly legal and publicly funded or banned outright, I do believe that a broad agreement about banning late-term, partial birth abortions either exists or would exist in short order if the powers of Congress to legislate in this matter hadn’t been improperly constrained by the Roe decision.


Where government’s enforcement powers are used to impose the will of a bare majority on a large and deeply unhappy minority, the law is stripped of its legitimacy as representing the true will of the people, and becomes, instead, an instrument of tyranny. We should therefore be very wary of enacting laws like those dealing with abortion – or the enactment of Obamacare – that force profound social changes in a hyper-partisan, majoritarian fashion.

A sense of self-restraint is vital to the long-term health of democratic governance.


M.H. Johnston



12 comments to Abortion and The Role of Government

  • Anonymous  says:

    Keep them coming Mr. Johnston. I appreciate them.

  • David  says:

    I agree 100%. Nicely said. Too little focus is given in them the public sphere to the corrosive effect Roe v. Wade had on democratic debate. It undermined Congress and politicised the courts. This has nothing to do with one’s views on abortion.

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    Welcome back.

    My argument regarding abortion is exactly as you state it. I have used that logic on both pro and anti abortion followers. Apparently, to no change of attitude on either of them. I have come to see that in part, the pro abortion group enjoy being perceived as victims. The anti folks really do believe it’s murder, but instead of spending their energy to convince women to use effective birth control before the fact, they want to take over when there is a “baby” to be killed.

    Thanks for getting back on the bandwagon.

  • Bob Parisi  says:

    Glad to have you back.

  • Kenda Pipkin  says:

    Excellent, well thought out analysis of our current state of affairs. I hope you’ll continue to share your insight.

  • Doug  says:

    If half of these readers are firmly of the opinion that Civil Horizon should cease to publish but the other half (who are paid subscribers like me) would like to see the continuation of these posts… and we vote, then, Civil Horizon stays. Glad you’re back.

    • Dennis Paine  says:

      @ Doug: I second that!

  • Ken  says:

    Welcome back and a well reasoned essay too. Thanks for posting.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Yours is a welcome voice.

  • Bart  says:

    Good post! I may not agree with everything, but it is well thought out, and a very good argument. I’m glad you will still be posting your thoughts.

  • Paul Rogen  says:

    Welcome back. Often, I do not agree with you, but I do find your line of reasoning solid.
    Keep it up.

  • Al  says:

    Roe v Wade is symptomatic of a major issue that faces our country; how we pass/change laws. With judicial activism (Roe V Wade is a poster child for judicial activism), executive orders and regulatory overreach we are bypassing the legislative process and separation of powers outlined in our Constitution. Obama abused his power and I suspect Trump will double down. Interesting time we live in. Not sure I agree with your comment on Obamacare. While I think it is a horrible law, accountability for that law has been brutal to the congressman who voted for it. The process is working. Which congressman are accountable for legalizing abortion or same sex marriage?

    FWIW, I am pro choice but think Roe v Wade is a disaster because it violates our legislative process.

    Thanks for sharing.

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