The recent controversy surrounding Tory grandee Jacob Rees-Mogg was illustrative of the difficulties which the issue of abortion presents to pro-life people who wish to advance politically, but it also pointed to how such figures can re-assert moral principles which for too long have been ignored.
While much of the online rage in this case came from people professing dismay that traditionalist views still existed, no informed commentator could have been that surprised, given the individual in question.
“I am completely opposed to abortion: life begins at the point of conception,” Rees-Mogg said, in answer to a direct question put to him by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. Pressed as so many pro-life politicians are on the issue of rape, the old Etonian was equally clear – an unborn should not be punished with death for the crime of his or her father.
Thus ended #Moggmentum, the mad hope of disgruntled Tories that Jacob Rees-Mogg – who lives, speaks and breathes conservatism – would replace the bumbling, inauthentic Theresa May and usher in a new dawn of glorious Tory rule.
He was never likely to stand for leadership regardless, but now nothing could take him to the summit of British politics. Should he challenge May, he will be stalked at every turn by journalists desperately seeking answers to questions about abortion.
The average British voter – who according to recent polls would welcome a tightening of the UK’s laws while opposing any outright ban – will know nothing of him except his one unpopular stance. The journalists’ actual obsession will be presented as the candidate’s imagined obsession, Tory moderates will race to distance themselves from him and the Labour leadership will have a field day attacking the courtly Member of Parliament for North East Somerset as representing the views of a bygone era.
Twitter exploded after the Piers Morgan interview, as did leading Labour feminists. In challenging the modern throwaway culture, Rees-Mogg had violated what has become a pseudo-religious dogma to modern secularists. A lesser politician would have backtracked. Rees-Mogg chose a different path, calmly tweeting ‘And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.’ In Latin, naturally.
And for the first time, perhaps in several generations, British voters heard a high-profile and influential politician speak words which are truly anathema to the dominant zeitgeist, words which are desperately in need of saying and desperately hard to say. Good on Moggy.
Rees-Mogg isn’t the first legislator to be faced with this problem, and the treatment afforded to the-then Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron before this year’s election formed an ominous prelude to the Rees-Mogg affair.
Ten years previous, Farron, a left-leaning Evangelical, had declared that “abortion is wrong” in a magazine interview.
His full answer, of course, emphasised that though he believed abortion to be immoral, he did not support banning it, and that Christians had to find other solutions to the problem. When reminded of his quote, Farron reiterated that he was pro-choice, that he believed that abortion should be safe and legal, and stressed that what he said about the moral dimension purely represented his own personal beliefs.
Was that enough? Of course not. The Lib Dems draw their support from middle-class social liberals; those least likely to be sympathetic to any concerns being expressed over abortion, at all, ever. The media in Britain is – as it is here – disproportionate made up of middle-class social liberals, and it was to be they, rather than the Lib Dem grassroots, who did the lion’s share of the subsequent work.
Farron was hounded on the subject. His separate (and entirely correct) refusal to answer questions about his private beliefs about whether homosexuality was sinful only compounded matters, and just like Rees-Mogg would, Farron became the target of abuse for his alleged homophobia.
Soon after the election, Farron decided that he had enough and quit as leader, complaining that it was no longer possible to remain faithful to his religion while leading his party.
The two men are very different in terms of backgrounds and beliefs. Rees-Mogg the ardent conservative, eager to extend protection to unborn children; Farron the lifelong liberal, who combined a strong Christian faith with a belief that he had no right to impose his moral views on others.
Their fates were similar though. Farron’s beliefs meant he could no longer lead his party, Rees-Mogg’s beliefs ensure that he will never lead his. Yet each has made a statement in his own way, one which testifies to the fact that principled people still exist in Parliament, treacherous though their paths must always be.
This is far from being a UK issue only. America is home to the world’s fiercest political debate over abortion, and over the last half century politicians of all stripes have conveniently and dramatically changed their views to advance themselves.
Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and that Trump character all went from supporting abortion rights to declaring themselves pro-life; Teddy Kennedy, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson waded across the Rubicon in the opposite direction. Some charlatans like Mitt Romney have held every position at least once.
Political expediency is not the only factor in such changes, of course. Presented with two competing rights, and heartbreaking stories to render each one unthinkable, many decent people change their minds over time.
Yet there is something unseemly, cynical and downright chilling about the ease with which politicians carefully manoeuvre themselves on the question of human life, all for the benefit of their careers.
Hillary Clinton’s chosen vice-presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine is a case-in-point. Throughout his career, Kaine employed the traditional ‘Cuomo’ approach – beloved by Catholic Democrats – of supporting abortion publicly while opposing it privately. As Governor of Virginia, he also supported some reasonable restrictions on its availability.
Over time though, he drifted further and further towards the standard pro-choice view, until being chosen as Hillary’s running mate. By then, there was only one more reversal left to be made.
Kaine had long opposed taxpayer funding for abortion. Yet Hillary was the first Democratic presidential nominee to campaign explicitly on forcing all Americans to pay for procedures which tens of millions of them consider tantamount to murder.
Asked about this policy shift in July of 2016, Kaine professed ignorance of the Democratic Party’s revised stance, before adding that he was and had been an opponent of such funding, and saying he would “check it out.”
Check it out he did, and within weeks, Tim Kaine had an epiphany. Taxpayer-funding was indeed a good idea, and Vice-President Kaine would stand with President Clinton II in seeking to enact it. If this professing Catholic agonised over the morality of what he was preparing to do, there is scant evidence of it. The rest, like Hillary’s career and Kaine’s conscience, is history.
Oireachtas hearings on the issue of the Eight Amendment are upon us. Irish politicians will now have to state what they believe and why, courting support and evading obloquy as best they can.
Every one of them can reflect on the pathways which politicians elsewhere have trodden, just as they can evaluate whether their principles are worth abiding by, and whether they would not profit more by breaking their word to voters than by keeping it.
There are no easy answers to the overall problems facing them, or us. On the question of life itself though, the best advice is also the most simple. When asked what one believes, speak the truth. For righteousness’ sake, and because it’s easier to remember.