Are Obama and Pelosi dodging the life-and-death question?
By George Weigel | Newsweek Web E
The whole thing here.
A few years ago, Richard Doerflinger, a pro-life Roman Catholic intellectual with decades of experience in the trenches of America's culture wars, was invited to debate the moral and legal status of the human embryo before a large class of Harvard undergraduates. During the course of the discussion, Doerflinger's Harvard faculty interlocutor drew a timeline of human biological development on the blackboard: conception, implantation, brain waves, viability, birth and so forth. His challenge to Doerflinger was to defend, in a nonarbitrary way and without reference to religious principles, the notion that society should recognize moral value and legal rights at any particular point along that line. If here, why here? If there, why there?
After the class, as the conversation continued with a few students and the professor, Doerflinger took a piece of chalk and extended the timeline to the end of the blackboard, where he wrote "Tenure." The students laughed, and got the message. The only point along that continuum that wouldn't be arbitrary was the starting point—conception.
Perhaps Doerflinger should send his extended timeline to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Throughout this lengthy campaign, the Democratic Party has worked hard to present itself as the party of intellect, competence and moral seriousness. Yet it's off to a very rocky start in addressing the substance of the abortion issue—which remains, 35 years after Roe v. Wade, one of the most volatile in our public life. Talk this week by Democratic leaders about lowering the incidence of abortion in America will rightly be welcomed by pro-life Democrats, including the large number of pro-life African-American Democrats. But the recent public record has to make committed pro-lifers of both parties wonder just how serious the Democratic leadership is about engaging the abortion debate.
At the Aug. 16 "Civil Forum on the Presidency" at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Sen. Barack Obama was asked by pastor Rick Warren, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?" Obama quickly changed the subject to when life begins, and then demurred: "... whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity ... is above my pay grade." Why, though? An embryology text widely used in American medical schools, "The Developing Human," is not so reticent about the science involved: "Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatazoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell—a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." That is the science. It's quite specific, and understanding the science here is surely not above the "pay grade" of a president who will be making public-policy decisions based on that science.
As for theology, there are, obviously, theological disagreements on the moral question of abortion. But while a president is not a theological referee, a president ought to have some grasp of the basic philosophical issues that have been vigorously debated in the abortion wars over the past several decades; these, after all, are the issues that should inform public policy. For decades now, pro-life advocates have been arguing, on the basis of reason informed by science, that nothing human was ever anything other than human, and that nothing not human will ever become human. These are things we can know prior to our theological convictions (or lack thereof). Does Senator Obama disagree with these claims?
There are also serious questions of political theory and governance at stake in the abortion wars. Pro-lifers have long argued that allowing the government to declare an entire class of human creatures—the unborn—outside the protection of the law is a danger for everyone (wherever they may be located on the Doerflinger timeline). Does Senator Obama agree that the abortion debate involves that first principle of justice which teaches that innocent life is inviolable and that the equal protection of the laws must extend to everyone, regardless of condition? Justice Byron White—President John F. Kennedy's sole appointment to the Supreme Court—described Roe v. Wade as an exercise in "raw judicial power." Does Senator Obama agree with Justice White that the Supreme Court overreached its authority in Roe v. Wade?
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