Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Compassion Forum (3): Clinton and Obama on the Sanctity of Human Life . . . or Not

Earlier this week (here and here), I posted my personal impressions about the unscripted, fascinating, and sometimes personally revealing observations of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about religion and faith and public life, during their participation in the Compassion Forum hosted by Messiah College in Pennsylvania on Sunday evening.

At the time of my first post on Monday, I noted my surprise and disappointment that this remarkable exchange had received so little public attention. As the days of the week have passed, this unprecedented dialogue about religious values in American politics has continued to be neglected by most of the media. Sigh. Unlike most commentators, Daniel Henniger of the Wall Street Journal did give it considerable play in a column today, concluding: “Some bloodless analysts have said for several years that Democrats had to say this [speak to the values of religious citizens] to win because, you know, a lot of people ‘go to church.’ And yes, what candidates seeking votes say may be false, faked or fantastic. What remains is the fact that these two, in competition for votes, have conferred political legitimacy and respect on this swath of America.” I agree that the forum was a step forward in conferring political legitimacy on people of faith as full-fledged members of our polity.

In this which will be my last post on the Compassion Forum, I move from the candidates’ general observations about religious faith in their lives and in the public square to the most prominent and controversial issue of public importance that implicates moral values—the sanctity of human life and protection for the unborn. To be sure, these Democratic candidates would resist the Catholic understanding of this subject as the foremost human rights issue of our day. But the Catholic witness for the sanctity of human life is clear and resolute, however politically inconvenient it may be for one of our two great political parties.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has aptly said that “abortion is the central social issue of this moment in our national history—not the only issue, but the foundational issue; the pivotal issue.” And Catholic teaching on responsibility in political life is consistent and continuing. The American bishops’ statement on “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (Nov. 2007), has been misleadingly cited by some as subordinating abortion in moral importance as a political issue, by selectively quoting the bishops’ phrase that “[a]s Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” In so saying, the bishops explained that “[a] candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support.” In other words, being right on a central issue does not necessarily mandate support. By contrast, however, the bishops emphasized that being wrong on a central issue could well preclude support: “[A] candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”

The singular importance of protecting human life as an obligation for those in public life has been a clear teaching of the Church in America for many years. As the American bishops had previously stated, in words the parallel the most recent statement:

Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care. . . . But being “right” in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the “rightness” of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.

So, on that preeminent question of human rights and the legitimately disqualifying intrinsic evil of supporting legal abortion, how far have the national Democratic candidates come toward respecting the sanctity of human life? Sadly, the Compassion Forum in Pennsylvania last Sunday shows the two who remain in the race have not come very far at all. While one of the candidates now acknowledges that the pro-life movement is composed of people of good faith and vaguely suggests a moral dimension to the issue, without amplification or any apparent consequence, nothing of substance appears to have changed.

During their separate appearances at the Compassion Forum, each candidate was asked directly whether he or she “believe[s] personally that life begins at conception?” And each candidate struck out on this soft-ball pitch. In 2004, despite a long history of enthusiastically defending legal abortion, presidential candidate John Kerry did allow as how he personally believed that life began at conception. Now given that he was in political trouble at the time and on the path toward losing the Catholic vote, Kerry’s belated confession of faith in unborn human life was regarded skeptically by many observers. But, on Sunday evening, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama could even hint at any personal opposition to abortion.

Senator Clinton responded by echoing the wooden and evasive phrase from Roe v. Wade itself, saying “I believe that the potential for life begins at conception.” If any element of the abortion debate can be reduced to a simple and objective scientific query, it is whether life begins at conception. The answer is indisputably “yes.” As anyone with even a little scientific understanding must admit, from the moment of conception, a distinct and unique genetic organism comes into being. And that individual life is plainly human (as opposed to some other species). The pro-choice movement instead must shoulder the heavy burden of persuading us that this human life is not worthy of protection, but it cannot rationally deny that it is human life.

Clinton then proceeded to inform us that her pro-choice views were based on her “personal experience” from visiting “countries that have taken very different views about this profoundly challenging question.” The contrasting examples she adduced were China, with its practice of “forced abortions and forced sterilization” to prosecute its one-child policy, and Romania, where women “were essentially forced to bear as many children as possible for the good of the state,” which included criminalizing abortion. Senator Clinton did not elucidate how these peculiar and extreme examples were supposed to inform the abortion debate in the United States. One may readily agree that the government should not force women to “bear as many children as possible,” and use secret police to aggressively enforce that mandate, without endorsing the radical abortion-on-demand regime that prevails in the United States but which is followed almost no where else in the western world.

Senator Obama’s answer to the question of when life begins was not much better, and indeed seemed feckless to me given the gravity of the matter. Affecting humility on the moral dilemma, he began by saying “[t]his is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on. I think it’s very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So I don’t presume to know the answer to that question.” Thus he wobbled from the question of “when life begins,” for which a simple biological answer exists, to the question of when that life is worthy of value, which apparently he suggested might be “when the soul stirs.” And when does the “soul stir” for Senator Obama, so that we may confidently give legal protection to that life? In the third-trimester? At birth? When the baby is able to smile? When the child’s first word is spoken?

Most importantly, if Obama truly does not know the answer to the question of when life begins, then shouldn’t he come down on the side of protecting that putative life until its absence is clearly established? Because the choice is literally life or death for an entity that may be a member of our human family, and given that Obama says he harbors uncertainty about the answer, why would he then favor allowing termination of what he admits could be a human person?

In any event, Obama immediately thereafter fumbled back to the same posture as Senator Clinton, when he too referred to the unborn as having “potential life.” Despite his professed irresolution, he apparently has answered the question of when life begins, and not in a way that values unborn life.

Senator Obama did offer words of forbearance for those of us who disagree with his position on abortion, which was more than Senator Clinton provided. Obama said that we should “recognize that people of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what’s right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.” Candidly acknowledging that efforts to find common ground could only go so far and that at some point there is an “irreconcilable difference” between the opposing sides on the abortion debate, Obama also said “those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws.” Of course, we pro-life citizens do not exercise our constitutional rights of expression and democratic governance by the benevolent grace of politicians, but it’s still nice to be accredited by Senator Obama as legitimate voices in the public square.

In addition, Senator Obama adverted to “a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down.” But given Obama’s unwillingness to affirm that human life may be at stake, the nature of this “moral dimension” was less than clear. Or that it makes any difference. Beyond words, what exactly does this recognition of a moral element mean to someone like Obama who is asking to lead our nation? Is there any evidence that this “moral dimension” to abortion or the “moral weight” to “potential life” that he acknowledges has any consequence for Obama’s approach to public policy on the question?

An overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress oppose partial-birth abortion, a horrifying practice that a majority of the Supreme Court later characterized as the equivalent of infanticide. But Senator Obama (and Senator Clinton) have been indifferent to this atrocity. During this campaign, both Clinton and Obama have castigated the Supreme Court for not intervening to overturn the democratic actions of their fellow members of Congress who had provided some minimal protection to late-term unborn children. In fact, both of these candidates have emphasized that they would appoint justices and judges who would allow no such constraints on abortion, leaving the license unrestricted at any stage of pregnancy or for any reason. When serving in the Illinois legislature, Obama even blocked legislation that would have required health care providers to give medical care to aborted babies who somehow survived the procedure. Both candidates would also devote taxpayer funds to paying for abortion. How exactly do any of these positions give credence to Obama’s ascription of “a moral weight to [to “potential life”] that we take into consideration”?

To be sure, both Senators Clinton and Obama said that they hoped to reduce abortions, each specifying efforts to encourage adoption and reduce teenage pregnancy as the means to that end. But neither of these candidates for the highest office could bring him or herself to say, even as a matter of personal moral trepidation, that abortion takes a life. Thus, we may be sure that neither will be motivated in political office to pursue action on this subject for the purpose of enhancing the value of human life and resisting the culture of death. Accordingly, with respect to the sanctity of human life, the gulf that separates the national Democratic Party and its presidential candidates from those of us who raise our voices on behalf of the unborn remains very wide indeed.

Greg Sisk


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