What the Abortion Debate Hath Wrought

The religious Right’s quiet decline is one of the more interesting political developments of the last decade. One struggles to believe that, as recently as 2004, the movement was deemed a kingmaker in American politics. White evangelicals were credited that year with George W. Bush’s reelection, and at the time, the political winds seemed with them. Initiatives rejecting same-sex marriage were passing everywhere they appeared on the ballot. A constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman was being seriously discussed. President Bush placed two conservative justices on the Supreme Court. New evangelical victories in the culture war seemed likely. Secular Progressives were warning of the coming “American theocracy.”

At the end of 2017, the political world looks very different. While the GOP is riding high once again, (narrowly) controlling the White House and Congress, few would claim that President Trump’s election represented a mandate for the Christian right’s agenda. Even if Roy Moore, whom he endorsed in the recent special election in Alabama, had won a seat in the Senate, Moore’s brand of conservative evangelical politics would not represent the GOP’s future. Well before Moore faced accusations of sexual misconduct, Republican leaders viewed him as an embarrassing anachronism. Although an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals had voted for President Trump, they understood he had little sincere interest in their traditional issues.

Nor do many prominent Republicans show any interest, at this point, in overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. Indeed, smarter GOP leaders undoubtedly realize that the Court did them a favor. Public opinion was turning sharply in favor of gay marriage before the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). Thus the subject’s departure from the arena of partisan politics was the best possible outcome for elected Republicans in Washington and at the state level. Now on the defensive, conservative Christians can only hope that bakers and florists will not be compelled by the states in which they reside to provide their services to gay weddings.

In light of the religious Right’s failure to win any lasting victories, one may be tempted to understate the movement’s overall importance to contemporary politics. To counter this temptation, one should read Andrew R. Lewis’ fantastic new book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics, which demonstrates the profound impact that the Christian Right, despite its many defeats, has had on American political life.

The assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati has written a dense book, full of fascinating details about the debates within conservative Christian circles in the late 20th century, and replete with quantitative opinion data from the general public and the clergy. The book makes a strong case that the recent pivot in conservative Christian politics toward “religious liberty” has been in the works for some time, and that the foundation for this pivot was laid well before the movement began losing its influence. Lewis convincingly argues that abortion politics played an instrumental role in this shift.

Throughout much of American history, it was the Left that predominantly employed the language of individual rights. Conservative Christians, with some notable exceptions, preferred to speak of ordered liberty, communitarianism, or republican virtues. This was largely due to the nature of the times; embattled minorities, not confident majorities, are typically the ones to appeal to individual rights. That being the case, we should not be surprised to see conservative Christians turning to such rhetoric as they began losing their privileged position in American life. Lewis is able, however, to pinpoint this transition: it was brought on by abortion’s becoming the primary focus of conservative Christian politics.

Abortion was not always a major concern of evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), notes Lewis. In fact, at that time Roe was decided, the Southern Baptist Convention formally favored abortion rights. Until the late 1970s, intense opposition to legal abortion was predominantly a Catholic position. There were profound political consequences when conservative evangelicals made abortion their primary political concern. Lewis points out that to justify their political cause in secular terms, the pro-life movement abandoned biblical justifications in favor of rhetoric about rights.

Rather than opposing abortion in the name of safeguarding sexual morality, opponents began more and more to justify it on the basis of a right to life. The National Right to Life Committee, founded in 1967, was a pioneer of this argument. Writes Lewis: “The NRLC focused almost exclusively on the rights of the unborn, drawing connections from the Declaration of Independence, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the U.S. Constitution.”

By the 1990s, conservative Christianity had all but abandoned talk of a moral majority. In its place, the religious Right chose to fight the secular Left using its adversaries’ own style of argument: “Moralizing had given way to liberalizing. Rights and justice have taken precedence over right and wrong.”

The abortion issue led Christian conservatives to frame other concerns in the language of rights, as well. Evangelicals were once skeptical of expansive free speech rights on the grounds that they opened the door to obscenity, blasphemy, and libel. Jerry Falwell famously sued Hustler Magazine, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In subsequent years, however, many evangelicals began taking this First Amendment right very seriously. Free speech was suddenly important to conservative Christians, as they needed to safeguard their ability to picket outside of abortion clinics and engage in other forms of protest.

Lewis provides polling data showing that evangelicals have steadily increased their unqualified support for free speech protections, including protection of speech they disagree with, and makes a persuasive case that the abortion issue was a catalyst for this trend.

The effectiveness of rights-based arguments compared to morality arguments can be seen in the trajectory of public opinion on same-sex marriage. Public attitudes surrounding abortion have held mostly steady in recent decades; the pro-life cause may have even gained some ground. In contrast, opposition to same-sex marriage was rapidly declining well before Obergefell. Unlike abortion, there is no reasonable way to oppose gay marriage on the ground that it violates traditionalists’ rights; opposition to gay marriage was primarily defended on the basis of morality, and such arguments are becoming increasingly ineffectual.

Lewis contends, moreover, that the abortion debate led to other critical changes in American politics, especially the politics of healthcare. It would be disingenuous if conservatives tried to claim that the Gospels dictate a free-market system for distributing medical care. Liberals, in contrast, would be able to argue that if the New Testament were to be a guide to policy, the provision of medical care to all, regardless of anyone’s ability to pay, would be easy to justify biblically. (The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind.) Indeed, for much of the 20th century, evangelicals generally supported proposals that would further involve government in the healthcare industry; they were at least no less supportive than the rest of the population.

This changed in the decades following Roe. Although the Supreme Court determined that the state could not deny access to abortion, it did not dictate that it had to pay for the procedure. Thus, every new initiative to expand governmental support for medical care led to questions of whether that support would extend to abortions. As a result, evangelicals joined the ranks of conservatives in opposing every major national healthcare initiative, making the conservative coalition more cohesive.

The author is silent on whether he considers the new evangelical intransigence on healthcare a good thing, but his overall view seems to be that the religious Right’s going in for rights-based arguments is a positive development.

He suggests that this slow transition within conservative Christian circles may usher in a new era of cultural pluralism, one in which all major political coalitions speak in the language of individual rights. He may be correct. On the other hand, if present demographic and cultural trends continue to benefit the secular Left, the long-term result may simply be a role reversal between the two camps, with secularists losing interest in rights-based rhetoric and pushing their own version of communitarian conformity. Lewis acknowledges this possibility, noting that “some political liberals have embraced a new kind of community morality regarding equal treatment for sexual orientation, punishing dissent.”

The Rights Turn is an impressive work of social science, in both its qualitative and quantitative aspects. The work combines Lewis’ encyclopedic knowledge of the Southern Baptist Convention’s internal debates with a strong and compelling analysis of survey data and experimental studies. I do not share his optimism that a “future détente in the culture wars of yesteryear” is around the corner—I suspect that the focus of the culture war will simply change to new issues—but his book provides fresh insights into some of the most contentious political battles of the last generation.

Reader Discussion

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on December 21, 2017 at 09:43:36 am

Personally, it disgusts me that we, as a nation, have reached a point, where we should even have to engage in debate about whether, like recently in PA where I reside, the rightness or wrongness in protecting at any cost, so-called "woman's right to choose" by protecting the horrific practice of live, dismemberment abortions. Its not pro-woman or pro-rights, its pro-power at any cost.

A country that can justify, rationalize, this act has not gained an inch of ground in advancing human rights, but has slid eons backwards into barbarism.

I'll hang up now and wait for the torrent of venom to be released.

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Paul Binotto
on December 21, 2017 at 11:13:25 am

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What the Abortion Debate Hath Wrought – Top 100 Blog Review
on December 21, 2017 at 11:23:25 am

For reasons of political philosophy, American history and constitutional principle I'm a strong supporter (but not a member) of organized political action by Christian and Jewish conservatives. Thus, I am suspicious and defensive and don't quite know what to make of this "book review" or of the book it discusses, Andrew R. Lewis’ "The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics. " And, furthermore, what is one to make of the reviewer himself, Professor Hawley, and of the book written by Professor Hawley, "Making Sense of the Alt-Right?"

My political instincts based on reading both Hawley's review, infra, of Lewis' "The Rights Turn..." and reviews of Hawley's book is that neither author is a friend of conservative Christian politics.

First, as to Hawley's book: Reasoning from the adage "You can judge a man by his friends" I conclude that you can also judge a book by its admirers, and I note that "Making Sense of the Alt Right" was praised by the Daily Kos, an arch enemy of Christianity: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/10/15/1705533/-Book-Review-Making-Sense-Of-The-Alt-Right.

Secondly, as to Lewis' "Making Sense of the Alt Right," if Professor Hawley's review is to be believed that book asserts a) what I believe to be factually incorrect (and I was witness to the era,) b) what may be Lewis' failure to appreciate the fact that the Bible is the motivation and ultimate source of all organized Christian political behavior, and c) what may be a crypto- attack on the Christian Right. I quote at length the following portion of Hawley's review of Lewis' book:

"There were profound political consequences when conservative evangelicals made abortion their primary political concern. Lewis points out that to justify their political cause in secular terms, the pro-life movement abandoned biblical justifications in favor of rhetoric about rights.
Rather than opposing abortion in the name of safeguarding sexual morality, opponents began more and more to justify it on the basis of a right to life."

The assertion I just quoted (that religious opposition to abortion was initially motivated "in the name of safeguarding sexual morality") makes no sense logically, 2) is factually incorrect, and 3) diminishes (intentionally?) the moral weight of the religious argument against abortion by demeaning the sincerity and the intelligence of the religious advocates of that argument.

First, abortion is at best (sic) only indirectly and remotely related to "sexual morality" insofar as convenient abortion may incentivize casual sex. And, furthermore, the "sexual morality" argument is a serious secular concern. It would make no sense for Christians to found their early opposition to a "fundamental constitutional right" (sic) on such logically and politically tenuous, secular grounds as "ban abortion to stop pre-marital and extra-marital sex." To be accused of having done so is to suggest that abortion opponents were politically inept ab initio (which was not true then or now and was actually the case "in the beginning" ONLY of appellants' truly deplorable oral argument In Roe vs. Wade.)

Secondly, the statement is historically inaccurate. Before and after Roe vs. Wade, organized opposition to abortion (what Hawley incorrectly calls the belated shift to "rhetoric about rights") by Protestant denominations and by the Catholic Church was always and is now based, not on secular grounds of sexual morality, but on the Christian imperative of the fundamental sanctity of human life, as founded on a multitude of Biblical passages from Genesis, to Psalms to the Ten Commandments, to the Golden Rule. While concerns about "sexual morality" have motivated Christian and secular opposition to myriad forces of historical and contemporary cultural decay, including opposition to same-sex marriage, those concerns for Christians have always been based on Biblical sanction of the sanctity of the family and the purpose of sexual relationship. But "sexual morality" (and similar secular concerns) was not and is not a foundational source of Christian opposition to abortion. What the author calls "rights talk" was always for Christians about the Word of God.

Finally, that false assertion (that "sexual morality" drove the early anti-abortion argument of Christianity) demeans the true religious motivation for opposing abortion, which is the Word of God, the Bible. That false assertion implicitly mischaracterizes conservative Christians as foolish, cynical and coldly calculating in their politics, as having only belatedly seen the stupidity of fighting on grounds of faith and Biblical principle a war that could only be waged successfully using the political "rhetoric of rights." It is "J'accuse," It is to charged by the Left with their ultimate slur, that of political naivete, and their only sin, that of hypocrisy. It is a defamation akin to maligning the Catholic Church for its 2000 years-old, theologically-based opposition to birth control by accusing the Church of sexual prudishness.

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on December 21, 2017 at 11:44:55 am


You have grasped perfectly what I too, found particularly disturbing (and insulting) in this essay (not of the essayist), but the conclusions drawn in the book reviewed, which resulted in my own remarks, which regrettably in my case, came off sounding more as a lashing out than rebuttal.

Thanks for your well reasoned and argued rebuttal and refutation.

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Paul Binotto
on December 21, 2017 at 14:21:08 pm

Yes, yes, except it was libertarians who used the left's own tactics of going to the courts with the language of rights on the "right" first, not the religious right. See Steven Teles Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, or Ideas With Consequences by Amanda Hollis-Brusky about the Federalist Society. The result, Heller and McDonald; not insignificant.

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on December 21, 2017 at 14:55:24 pm

"What abortion hath wrought" - so states the essayist, who thereupon proceeds to reduce the effects of this significant change in community sensibilities/ practices and morality to nothing more than an exposition of *political* tactics. In the effort, he succeeds in demeaning the many serious and dedicated proponents of a "right to life" AND the moral basis of those arguments advanced in support of their position.

He also fails to notice precisely what abortion, and its subsequent affirmations by Courts, has *wrought.*

It is now the Christmas Season. And as is typical the airwaves are filled with requests for charitable giving. The ASPCA, in particular, has an emotionally wrenching appeal based upon cruelty to shelter animals. It is calculated to wound ones sensibilities with its portrayal of abused and beaten canines and felines. doubtless, it works, as it appears each and every season, and the citizenry sends numerous donations to this good organization.

YET, simultaneously, with these televised appeals, we find the Executive of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, supported by some indistinct BLACK ROBED Guardian of the public weal, advancing the absurdity that a feline or canine is entitled to greater consideration than an unborn human being. Consider that it is unlawful in every State of the Union to treat an animal in the manner that certain abortion *providers* treat an unborn human being.

What if the ASPCA advertisement showed images of a dog being dismembered? Would there not be outrage? would not charges be brought against the offending parties? Would not even the ASPCA be properly and roundly castigated.

AND YET: We hear the commentariat applauding the courage of the Executive and this execrable Black Robed Jurist.

So, again, "What has abortion wrought?" -
It has brought us to a place where the vile and hideous dismemberment of unborn human children is looked upon with a *passionate disinterest* whilst we deplore the mistreatment of orphaned puppies / cats.
We value "choice" more than common decency?

Can we at least euthanize the unborn PRIOR to tearing them "limb from (f'ing") limb?

BUT NO - it appears that we will not even afford them that minimal dignity as a recent case in the United States finds another Black Robe deciding that the application of a drug to kill the unborn child prior to dismemberment is unacceptable. (I forgot what State this was in - but what damn difference does it make, anyway).

Perhaps, we should launch a new campaign to protect unborn children from this monstrosity AND THE MONSTERS WHO PERFORM THIS procedure; we can employ the "animal rights" narrative, for surely, if a dumb dog can be protected from this medieval torture than a human animal may have similar rights.

Or would that also offend both the above essayist and the author of the reviewed book?

In the immortal words of Anthony Hopkins in Legends of the Fall - "Screw 'em"!!!!

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on December 21, 2017 at 16:39:53 pm

Well said, Mr. Gabe.

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Paul Binotto
on December 21, 2017 at 18:44:58 pm

Wait, you're saying that people are acting more liberal and less conservative? That's how you define this year as the death of religion?

http ://recapp.etr. org/recapp/index.cfm?fuseaction=pages.StatisticsDetail&PageID=555

Between 1991-2015, the proportion of students who ever had sexual intercourse decreased from 54% to 41%.
The percent of adolescents who are having sex at earlier ages has decreased since 1988 and contraceptive use has increased since the 1990s. Together these two factors have contributed to the U.S. reaching its lowest teen pregnancy and birth rates in years.

Between 1991-1999, the percentage of high school students who had sexual intercourse during the past three months who drank alcohol or used drugs before their last sexual intercourse increased from 22% to 25% and then decreased during 1999-2015 (25% to 21%).

Between 1991 and 2015, the proportion of students who had sexual intercourse with four or more persons during their lifetime decreased from 19% to 11.5%.

Between 1991 and 2015, the percentage of teens who reported having had sex before the age of 13 decreased from 10.2% to 3.9%.

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Jane R.
on December 22, 2017 at 01:06:04 am

" New evangelical victories in the culture war seemed likely."

Teenagers are losing their virginity one-to-two years later than during the 80s and having two-to-three fewer sexual partners over their lifetime than people in the 70s. Those were the two main goals of the Evangelical Religious right, and they got them. They won.

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on December 25, 2017 at 08:19:51 am

Consider that it is unlawful in every State of the Union to treat an animal in the manner that certain abortion *providers* treat an unborn human being.

Really? In every state of my acquaintance it is legal to slaughter animals for food. I’m not acquainted with a single state of the union that makes similar provisions for fetuses.

Now, to be sure, many people regard the practice of slaughtering animals for food to be outrageous. Doubtless some members of the ASPCA are among them. And gabe is correct: The appeals of those opposed to killing animals are rather similar to the appeals of those opposed to abortion: “emotionally wrenching appea[s] based upon cruelty …. calculated to wound ones sensibilities…. doubtless, it works, as it appears each and every season, and the citizenry sends numerous donations….”

Yet as I noted above, I’m not aware of a single state that bans the practice of slaughtering animals. It’s a practice that is easy to characterize as heartless, yet it endures. And people who choose to reject the meat industry remain a minority.

Which might lead to the following conclusion: Most of the public is not opposed to killing; it is opposed to NEEDLESS killing. Thus, the same states that acknowledge the meat industry will have laws against animal cruelty. And states that acknowledge abortion will have laws against cruelty against humans.

The day may come when artificial wombs permit fetuses to be carried to term without unduly imposing on an unwilling woman to do the labor. And in that day, expect we’ll see prohibitions on harming the fetuses. But until that day, the only way we have to defend the woman’s right to bodily autonomy is to remove the fetus, even at the expense of the fetus’s life.

Many people object to defending the woman’s bodily autonomy when it comes at this price, just as many people object to eating meat. For my part, I feel moral pangs about my failure to donate a kidney to save the life of a fellow human being. But for better or worse, the law does not compel me to use my body to promote the life of someone else, even if the other person will die as a result. Maybe we should change such laws. But until we do, we don’t.

Merry Christmas, gabe.

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on December 25, 2017 at 11:29:21 am


First, Merry Christmas to you as well.

BUT - you miss my objection in the above commentary. Notice (if I read my own words correctly) that in the comments above, I argue only that it is "monstrous" to dismember an unborn child.
Would you deny this?

A woman seeking an abortion may still do so using means that most would characterize as less "barbaric" than tearing the unborn human limb from limb. Why would anyone insist upon this *procedure*? If done in the name of medical necessity (doubtful), can we not at least limit the pain felt by the unborn human?
BUT NO, we must literally "rip" it piece by piece from the mothers uterus.

Can you not see that many will find this reprehensible practice to defy common decency.

Continue your support for "women's rights", as is your option BUT do not make false and facile claims that in an effort to reduce the pain experienced by an unborn human, we" compel [you] to use [your] body to promote the life of someone else". That is clearly NOT the issue here; rather, the issue is the amount of cruel and barbaric behaviors we are prepared to confront with the usual posture of "passionate disinterest" which serves to mask our preference for preferred policy over basic decency.

This reeks of hypocrisy - the higher concern for the treatment of canines / felines than for the treatment of an unborn human.

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on December 26, 2017 at 01:21:07 am

Come on, dude; we've had this discussion before.

If you have evidence that fetuses at 20 weeks can experience pain, provide it.

And when people want to impose the burden of their religion on others, but are unwilling to bear the same burdens themselves—I agree, that reeks of hypocrisy.

But honestly, is there anything new to say about this?

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on December 26, 2017 at 10:46:58 am

Wait, you’re saying that people are acting more liberal and less conservative? That’s how you define this year as the death of religion?

Was this post meant for some different discussion? No one here defined this year as the death of religion.

Nor did the author say that people are acting more liberal—at least, in the sense I suspect you mean. “Liberal” has come to have two meanings: Social liberalism refers to the left side of the political spectrum, with lots of concern for historically marginalized groups (contrasted with “conservatives” and the desire to conserve traditional values and social structures). In contrast, classical liberalism focuses on individual rights. The author argues that conservatives have found that they can make more headway by focusing on individual rights than by focusing on the need to maintain traditional values. In this sense, the author suggests that conservatives have adopted the values of CLASSICAL liberals.

And there’s nothing inconsistent with changes in sexual statistics and liberalism—whether classical or social. Women are a historically marginalized group, and as such, often lacked agency to defend their autonomy against men. Historically sexual activity was limited by conservative social norms imposed on all; think Scarlet Letter. Conservatives were dismayed as the power of those social norms eroded. But liberals (of each kind) were also dismayed to think that women became victims in a world in which they lacked the power to say no.

Today, ever more women feel empowered to reject sex until they want it. No means no. That’s a victory for people who value autonomy, for people who value defending the rights of traditionally marginalized groups, AND for people who value reducing sex outside of marriage.

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on December 26, 2017 at 16:51:37 pm

Same old same old from Nobody wherein nobody makes the implied claim that only nobody knows the "science" behind a topic. Well, here is some "science" for you. Admittedly, one would have to understand neuroscience to fully appreciate the information - but then again all one has to do is to OBSERVE an unborn human in utero when subjected to painful stimuli. Indeed, as i recall, (and before the abortion lobby got a full head of steam) in the early days of ultrasound there was a fair amount of discussion as to whether ultrasound should even be employed BECAUSE of the response of the unborn child. (And don;t argue that, my friend, that was my industry and numerous doctors were involved in the discussions).

http://www.doctorsonfetalpain.com/ ( a list of 11 studies / papers)


There are many more available.

Even still, if these papers were to be refuted, is not HUMAN LIFE entitled to something more than a medieval barbarity such as the modern day equivalent of being "drawn and quartered."

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on January 26, 2018 at 22:22:35 pm

Welcome to the neo-moral paradigm where the Judeo-Christian order is condemned and primitive hedonism meshed with relative moral compasses guide policy.
It used to be thst when the birds and the bees were discussed it was hoped that the pupil would understand that a pregnancy results. From ancient times abortion and infanticide was used to discard of unwanted fetuses or infants resulting from rape or hard times. Several cultures such as the Philistines sacrificed children to appease their deity. Early Christian followers were taught that abortion was wrong in early writings like the Didache. Perhaps earlier Evangelical groups did not study such writings previously, but the Catholic scholars still retained duch knowledge.
Science has advanced considerably since Roe v. Wade in the understanding of pregnancy and fetal development. In fact the NIH WebMD website acknowledges that from the moment of conception the developing fetus is "your Baby". Whether one cell in the womb or the 57 trillion cells in the adult, if left unmolested and unharmed the individual will burst forth from the womb and likely live to a ripe old age. This includes pregnant women.
I suppose the continuing argument for abortion is if it should be a "whoops there it is" method of birth control. Those who have adopted the relativistic neo-moral paradigm are likely to say yes. Those familiar with Christian teachings from the earliest times and those familiar with the latest scientific imaging and research are likely to say no.

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on January 27, 2018 at 11:52:13 am

If you think about it, Progressive/liberal/socialist/Marxist folks in the United States are the luckiest and should be the most grateful people on earth. The are the ones their mothers decided not to kill.

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Image of willys36
on January 28, 2018 at 11:22:14 am

Ha- yes,

It seems the irony is lost on folks like Warren Buffet, who will attribute his fortune and success (in false humility?) to his luck in winning what he refers to as the, "Ovarian Lottery", all the while using that fortune to advance abortion initiatives mostly in third world countries on the African continent - makes me wonder, is he merely trying to further increase his odds?

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Paul Binotto
on February 06, 2018 at 00:02:21 am

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What the Abortion Debate Hath Wrought - The Aquila Report

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.