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When Perfection Kills

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Ahmad is a parliamentarian in a rogue Middle East nation where women 17 and under are the property of their fathers. Each year, thousands of young girls are sold into sex-slavery by age 7. Typically, a girl’s father signs a lucrative 10-year contract with an adult male who in turn possessed the girl as his slave until she turned 18. At that time, he returns the girl to her family and pays for a special surgical procedure that restores the appearance of physical virginity, allowing her father to re-sell her to another man in marriage.


Ahmad is deeply grieved by this barbaric state of affairs and is committed to protecting all girls from sex-slavery, but he does not have the votes to do it. Nevertheless, he fights on. Last year, he convinced a slim majority of MPs to ban 10-year slave contracts. While sex-slavery remained legal, it was tougher to sell young girls and the practice dipped 10 percent.

This year, Ahmad has just enough votes to do more. He knows the new Prime Minister will support a bill protecting nationals from sex-slavery, thus saving 97 percent of girls from the barbaric practice. Given the current reality is that no girls—nationals or non-nationals—are protected, Ahmad is delighted at the government’s compromise. But there is no time to lose. On Saturday, 20,000 young girls were up for auction. If the bill passed before then, 19,400 of them would walk away forever free.

Only they didn’t. On the eve of the vote, two fellow MPs who shared Ahmad’s anti-slavery convictions pulled their support for the bill on grounds that it allows exceptions and did not immediately end all sex-slavery for both nationals and non-nationals. They said they could not, in good faith, decide which girls are enslaved and which are not. Unlike Ahmad, they were not going to compromise their principles by regulating slavery.

Ahmad patiently explained that he was not deciding which girls could be enslaved and which could not. Previous regimes did that when they declared that no girls—nationals or non-nationals—had protections from slave trade. He was simply limiting the evil insofar as possible given current political realities. He asked his critics point blank whether freedom for the non-nationals was closer with 97 percent of the practice forbidden or when it was allowed 100 percent. He reminded them that the current legal environment did not require anyone to exercise a right to own girls as slaves—so, by voting for the proposed bill, they would not be making the current situation worse. They would be making it better. As for compromising, the government was the one doing that by moving from the total permissibility of sex-slavery to almost no sex-slavery. Thus, if together they remained committed to protecting all children—something they might very well achieve if they keep at it—why not save the 97 percent right now, before the auction?


Saturday morning, 20,000 young girls had new homes…and new masters.

If you think that appalling scenario can’t happen here, guess again.

Last month, I witnessed a jaw-dropping exchangebetween former Pennsylvania State Representative Gregg Cunningham and T. Russell Hunter of Abolish Human Abortion (AHA). Hunter and AHA attack pro-lifers for allegedly “regulating” abortion rather than calling for its immediate abolition. They insist that pro-life advocates who support incremental legislation that limits the evil of abortion, but doesn’t ban it outright, are not only mistaken; they are immoral. And it’s their fault abortion continues.

Against that backdrop, Cunningham—who authored incremental bills in the Pennsylvania Statehouse—accepted Hunter’s challenge to debate in Tulsa. Cunningham won the debate handily by pointing out a fundamental flaw in Hunter’s argument—namely, the mistaken claim that pro-lifers have the power to end abortion immediately but won’t. Indeed, pro-life legislators who advance incremental bills are not deciding which children live and which die; the Supreme Court did that when it declared that no unborn humans have a right to life. In short, pro-lifers don’t have to choose between incremental legislation that saves some children right now and total abolition that saves all at a later time. Rather, they can advance both strategies simultaneously and save many lives in the process. Historically, that’s what social reformers do.

During cross-examination, Hunter stumbled badly when asked if those babies saved through incremental legislation should have been left to die. This was the defining moment of the debate. Holding up research from Dr. Michael New of the University of Michigan, Cunningham argued that incremental laws are indeed saving lives everywhere they are passed. He then pressed Hunter to answer the question: “What about these babies? Should we allow them to die instead of passing incremental legislation that would save them?” When Hunter refused to give a direct answer—despite being repeatedly asked to do so—the debate was effectively over.


Last week, the U.S. House passed a fetal pain bill that restricts abortions after 20 weeks. The bill is not perfect. Predictably, Abolish Human Abortion and other absolutists joined Planned Parenthood condemning the bill. But the history of social reform is not on their side. No less an abolitionist than Frederick Douglass reminded us in his tribute to Lincoln that cultural and political realities sometimes limit our efforts to advance a just cause to its rightful end. But all is not lost. Incremental steps—whether Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or 20-week abortion bans—educate the public and put important premises into law needed to eventually protect all human beings.

Cunningham closed the debate with these chilling words: “We will give an account to God for babies we could have saved but didn’t.” Until that day, Hunter and those like him can pat themselves on the back for opposing imperfect legislation. But their moral smugness is cold comfort to dead children.

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