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Liberalism Without Its Soul

Purdue University hosted a joltingly eye-opening debate March 3 on the resolution “Is Abortion a Human Rights Injustice?” Arguing the affirmative was the young Seth Drayer of Created Equal, a pro-life organization that argues against abortion on human rights grounds. Purdue University’s Professor of Communications Ralph Webb, PhD, argued the negative. What made the event particularly jarring was Webb arguing not only that abortion doesn’t violate human rights, but that, in truth, there are no human rights that could be violated. The pro-choice professor was flat-out denying the concept of universal human rights, and thus the debate at Purdue University showed how abortion has caused liberalism to abandon its historically fundamental principles.

Webb’s argument could be conceptualized as a type of fortress with two walls that his opponent was charged with knocking down. One “wall” was the denial of fetal humanity/personhood. Although he expanded on contradicting views of human life in order to throw the issue consciousness as an origin point for humanity. Webb’s second “wall” was a much more fundamental argument: He repeatedly stated that there are no universal human rights, and that rights were really dependent upon cultures. The extent to which he was willing to take this view was painfully seen when Drayer asked him whether sex trafficking could be justified in certain cultures and Webb answered yes.

Historically, what marked liberalism in both its classical form and its modern form was a belief in human rights. It was John Locke’s two treatises on government that stated:

This belief in human rights was what inspired the American Revolution in the 18th century, the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, the expansion of suffrage to women in the early 20th century, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and the gay rights movement of the 21st century. With an awareness of this historical backdrop, it is somewhat jarring to hear Webb, the pro-choice and “liberal” debater, argue that there are no human rights in order to undermine the claim that elective abortion is a human rights injustice.

The historical irony is that Webb was channeling the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, in his denial of universal human rights. The idea that what is right and what is wrong can only be determined by the culture of a particular country is not that different from Burke’s argument that rights are not reasoned, but based purely on the English tradition (2). This idea has caused the worst aspects of conservatism historically, from the Southern defense of slavery justified by a belief that American democracy was exclusively for whites to the standard right-wing defense of waterboarding justified by a belief that the constitutional prohibition against torture does not apply to non-citizens. By grafting the denial of universal human rights into liberal philosophy, Webb and the pro-choicers who use such arguments have simply targeted dehumanization at another class of human beings, the unborn.

Indeed, it is not only Webb who has denied this central tenet of liberalism. Mary Elizabeth Williams, in a provocative 2013 Slate article titled “So What if Abortion Ends Life?,” stated:

Williams seems to concede that the idea that the human fetus does not have the equal human rights of born people is a contradiction of the general liberal ideal of equality. Yet, when pushed against the idea of abortion rights, she is willing to allow this concept to drop, thus ending the noblest aspect of historical liberalism and creating a liberalism without a soul.

To further the irony, it is the pro-lifers who have dusted off the historical liberal arguments and applied them to the preborn. Drayer made appeals to a natural right to live, one which applied universally to all human beings. He even argued that the pro-life society would be the more inclusive society since it would base the right to life on humanity, not on age or dependency. Indeed, the famous quote by Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a pro-life activist and the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, opposing a society, “where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live,” is 100 percent in the spirit of historical liberalism (4).

Abraham Lincoln once told a parable of two men who had gotten into such an intense fight that when it was over they winded up in each other’s coat (5). This is a truly apt metaphor for the Purdue debate and the abortion debate in general. The young and idealistic Drayer argued for a more inclusive society where the rights of children were respected. The old and skeptical Webb argued that there were no universal human rights and that the victims of abortion were not truly human. Such a reversal of equalitarian principle is a sad event in the history of liberalism.


1. John Locke Classics of Moral and Political Theory 4th ed. , ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005), 686.

2. Ian Shapiro “The Burkean Outlook” (Lecture, The Moral Foundation of Politics, Yale University, CT, 2010)

3. Mary Elizabeth Williams, “So What if Abortion Ends Life?,” Slate, last modified January 23, 2013. com/2013/01/23/so_what_if_abortion_ends_life/

4. “Honoring Dr. Mildred Jefferson” The Radiance Foundation. org, last modified February 3 2012,

5. Abraham Lincoln “to Henry L. Pierce and Others”, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3 ed Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap (New Brunswick, N.J:Rutgers University Press,1953 ), 375.

Photo from Purdue University newspaper, some rights reserved.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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