Ethics & Public Policy Center

Above My Pay Grade…Four Years later

Published in National Review Online on August 17, 2012



Four years ago yesterday, on August 16, 2008, then-senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain joined Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., for the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency.”

The most memorable moment of the evening, by far, came when Pastor Warren asked Senator Obama about his views on human life.

Coming only a few days after his notorious remarks about bitter midwesterners clinging to their guns and religion, Obama’s now infamous response was but one in a long line of comments and gestures that have come to exemplify that galling blend of condescension and nonchalance that, for many, define this president.

Yet the flippancy of Obama’s response — that answers to such questions are, “above my pay grade” — overshadowed a very important and revealing aspect of his answer. Or rather, lost in the controversy about the tone of Obama’s response was the question that was actually asked.

Everyone seems to remember Warren’s question as “When does human life begin?” This is probably because that is the question Obama (flippantly) answered. But that wasn’t the question. What Pastor Warren did ask was a much more direct question, a question much less easily obfuscated by the supposed vagaries of science or theology: “At what point does a baby get human rights?”

Taken at face value, that’s not even a question about abortion — unless there’s some reason to assume a “baby” is unborn. As Warren asked it, the question was not a matter of science or religion. It was (and is) a question about the legal and moral status of certain acknowledged members of the human community.

In other words, it is a fundamentally political question and points directly to the fundamental political question: Who is, and who is not, a member of the community? No serious politician, still less a president, can be indifferent to such a question.

Moreover, it is a question that has actual legal significance — beginning with the Constitution which, while it may be silent on the status of unborn persons, speaks explicitly about “born” persons. Ignoring or dodging the question of when life begins is one thing; ignoring or dodging the question of who has protected rights under the law as it actually exists right now is something else entirely.

So when does a human baby get rights? When she’s born? When she turns one? When she gets tenure?

Most people who aren’t Peter Singer would agree that, whatever the biological, moral, or legal status of the unborn child, a live newborn human has human rights and is deserving of protection. Heck, that’s something about which even NARAL agrees.

So the “easy” pro-choice answer to Warren’s question is that a baby gets human rights “at birth.” While many (myself included) find that answer deeply inadequate and even arbitrary with respect to what the baby actuallyis- i.e., a living member of the human species — such an answer at least pertains to a significant event; one traditionally weighted with immense spiritual, moral, and social significance.

“Birth” is also an answer that more or less accords with current U.S. law, including theRoeregime. In this country, life’s consistent legal protection begins at birth. So unless one wants to concede that the United States’s defense of basic human rights falls short by failing to protect the human rights of unborn humans — an awkward admission for someone who favors abortion rights — “birth” is a nice, safe answer.

Of course, even if he had wanted to answer Rick Warren’s actual question, “birth” wasn’t an answer Barack Obama could have given without putting himself in a very tricky spot.

If a baby gets human rights at birth, then Barack Obama has voted to deny human rights. As a state senator, Obama actively opposed the Illinois Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, refusing to grant legal protections to living, breathing, post-birth babies — regardless of whether they were born as the result of labor (premature or otherwise) or induced abortion. In other words, Obama explicitly denied the extension of legal protection for basic human rights to babies who have already been born.

As Peter Kirsanow wrote four years ago (before Saddleback, I might add):

If there was ever a question that goes directly to a candidate’s capacity for compassion, it’s “At what point is a baby entitled to be treated as a human being?”

Perhaps now that Obama’s pay grade has moved up from senator to president, and he’s had a few years to think it over, someone should ask him that again.

-Stephen P. White is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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