The pro-life principles of President Bush have often been questioned (not least in these pages), but, in late August, the President confounded his critics and firmly established his credentials as the most pro-life occupant of the Oval Office since Bill Clinton.

In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration approved “Plan B,” the “morning-after pill,” for prescription use.  Essentially just a massive dosage of the hormones found in standard birth-control pills, Plan B, taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, prevents pregnancy in two ways: first, by frustrating fertilization; and, failing that, by keeping the fertilized egg—the embryo—from implanting in the womb.  In other words, the drug sometimes acts as a contraceptive and sometimes as an abortifacient, just as standard birth-control pills do.

The acting commissioner of the FDA, Andrew Von Eschenbach, had announced at the end of July (the day before his confirmation hearing) that he would consider approving Plan B for over-the-counter use by women over the age of 18.  Then, during an August 21 news conference, President Bush declared that “I believe that Plan B ought to be—ought to require a prescription for minors.  That’s what I believe.”  In case there was any doubt about where he stood, he added that he supported “Andy’s decisions.”

Three days later, the FDA approved the application by Barr Laboratories, maker of Plan B.

In the days that followed, the same pro-life groups who had, a month before, applauded the President’s “courageous” decision to veto funding for expanded embryonic stem-cell research expressed their dismay over this turn of events.  They failed, however, to understand the subtlety of President Bush’s actions in defense of life.  As luck would have it, Robert T. Miller, an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law, was ready to explain it to us on the First Things blog.

“People in the pro-life movement,” Miller wrote, “need to keep their heads and realize that there are legal and political realities that limit an officeholder’s freedom.”  St. Thomas More, he argued, understood this well, and he quoted from More’s Utopia: “In a commonwealth and in the councils of princes, if ill opinions cannot be quite rooted out, and you cannot cure some received vice according to your wishes, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth, for the same reasons you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds. . . . You ought rather to cast about and to manage things with all the dexterity in your power, so that if you are not able to make them go well they may be as little ill as possible.”

In other words, what Miller understood, and those poor benighted pro-lifers did not, is that principles mean nothing if you don’t have the power to impose them.  Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Patty Murray (D-WA) were holding up Andrew Von Eschenbach’s confirmation over Plan B.  After he announced that he would approve Plan B for over-the-counter use, his confirmation proceeded.  A simple compromise allowed the Bush administration to win that battle.  Now that Von Eschenbach’s confirmation is assured, think of how many babies he will be able to save when the next abortifacient drug comes up for approval!  It’s the happiest ending since the Man for All Seasons made his little compromise and agreed to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession, thus living to fight another day.

What’s that?  You say it didn’t happen that way?  Thomas More went to his death rather than swear the oath?  Surely you must be mistaken.  After all, if President Bush wasn’t following More in compromising his principles in order to save them, that would mean that he really has no problem with the widespread over-the-counter use of Plan B, which will lead to countless abortions of children conceived the way that God intended.  And that would suggest that his commitment to the right to life of embryos created in test tubes—embryos he surely must realize should never have been created in the first place—might be nothing more than election-year rhetoric.  You can’t really expect a loyal Republican to contemplate—much less believe—such an outlandish idea, can you?

Quick—call Robert Bolt!  We need a rewrite.  We have a few weeks left before the midterm elections.  What?  He died over a decade ago?  Then get me Stephen Colbert!  With a little truthiness, St. Thomas More might still be able to save the day.