Michael Gerson

Rudy Giuliani is understandably the Republican front-runner. And not just because of the fading echoes of Sept. 11, 2001. Giuliani is a crucial figure in the conservative movement.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, many conservatives believed that social pathologies such as rising crime and urban decay were irreversible because cultural decline and the breakdown of the family made them inevitable.

As mayor of New York, Giuliani cheerfully ignored this cultural pessimism and began enforcing laws against vagrancy, panhandling and petty crime, thus reclaiming public spaces for a grateful public. He proved that some of America's worst social problems will yield to competence and reforming zeal. And he did it with a ferocious charm that makes it easy to imagine him campaigning successfully at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop.

But Giuliani is now attempting a political vault with the highest degree of difficulty: winning the GOP presidential nomination as a pro-choice candidate. Pro-life passions remain strong among Republicans in leadoff states such as Iowa and South Carolina. Yet the dam-burst of early primaries also includes California, New York and other places more accustomed to a libertarian lean.

There is, however, a question that comes before politics: Does Giuliani's position on abortion actually make sense?

In early debates and statements, he has set out his views on this topic with all the order and symmetry of a freeway pileup. His argument comes down to this: "I hate abortion," which is "morally wrong." But "people ultimately have to make that choice. If a woman chooses that, that's her choice, not mine. That's her morality, not mine."

This is a variant of the position developed by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1985. In this view, the Catholic Church's belief in the immorality of abortion is correct, in the same sense that its belief in the Immaculate Conception is correct. Both beliefs are religious, private and should not be enforced by government.

But the question naturally arises: Why does Giuliani "hate" abortion? No one feels moral outrage about an appendectomy. Clearly he is implying his support for the Catholic belief that an innocent life is being taken. And here the problems begin.

How can the violation of a fundamental human right be viewed as a private matter? Not everything that is viewed as immoral should be illegal; there are no compelling public reasons to restrict adultery, for example, or to outlaw sodomy. But when morality demands respect for the rights of a human being, those protections become a matter of social justice, not just personal or religious preference.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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