Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Democrats and the Abortion Wars

Published in Newsweek on August 25, 2008



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?

At Saddleback, Senator Obama expressed his “respect” for the views of consistent pro-lifers because their conviction that “life begins at conception … is a core issue of faith” for those voters. This, however, is another dodge. Yes, for some pro-lifers, obedience to religious authority is the source of their conviction. Yet to suggest, as Obama did, that the pro-life position rests on private (and thus inherently undebatable) religious intuitions is to have missed virtually the entirety of the substantive pro-life argument since 1973. Pro-lifers of both parties–some of them agnostic and atheists–have made genuinely public arguments, based on scientific knowledge, reason and democratic political theory. Judging from the evidence to date, the Democratic candidate for president has yet to engage those arguments seriously.

Then there are the multiple confusions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In her “Meet the Press” appearance Aug. 24, Pelosi was asked by Tom Brokaw whether she agreed with Senator Obama’s statements on abortion at Saddleback. Pelosi, declaring herself an “ardent, practicing Catholic,” told Brokaw that “this is an issue that I have studied for a long time”–and then got herself into a deep muddle, in which she seemed to confuse St. Augustine with St. Thomas Aquinas (neither of whom, in any case, knew anything about modern embryology); misrepresented the settled (and scientifically informed) judgment of the Catholic Church on when life begins by declaring it an open question, and concluded by suggesting that none of this really makes a difference, because what the scientists, theologians, and philosophers say “… shouldn’t have an impact on a the woman’s right to choose.” The Speaker then misrepresented the legal impact of Roe v. Wade, arguing that the Supreme Court hadn’t created a right to “abortion on demand”–which will come as news to those on both sides of the ongoing debates over partial-birth abortion and other late-term abortion procedures, parental- and spousal-notifications laws and regulatory oversight of abortion clinics.

Democrats who had hoped to persuade a good number of evangelicals and Catholics to return to their traditional 20th-century political home in November 2008 cannot be very encouraged by such intellectual disarray on the part of their party’s senior federal official. For more than three decades, the abortion license created by the high court in Roe v. Wade has been an important factor in determining American voting behavior–in more than a few instances, the decisive factor. Yet, judging by her performance on “Meet The Press” (which seemed to surprise the usually unflappable Tom Brokaw), the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives is as ill-informed on the scientific and legal facts involved in the abortion debate as she is of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Speaker Pelosi is, like most “ardent, practicing” Catholics, a great admirer of the late Pope John Paul II. Was John Paul wrong, one wants to ask Speaker Pelosi, when he wrote in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] that “abortion … always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being”? Was he wrong when he further stated that this moral truth could be known by reason, and was thus a matter of grave concern to public policy?

However far they may be below the pay grade of a pope, pro-life advocates deserve the respect of having their arguments taken seriously.
Given the opportunity to do just that at Saddleback, Barack Obama opted for rhetorical finesse over substantive engagement; that choice may have done fatal damage to his capacity to peel evangelical and Catholic swing voters away from the now-tattered Republican coalition. Given a nationally televised opportunity to repair some of that damage, Nancy Pelosi, seemingly bereft of coherent ideas, could only fall back on the mantra of “choice.” Appeals to Joe Biden’s being a Catholic kid from hardscrabble Scranton, Pa., will not likely persuade many committed pro-life voters that the water is once again safe in the Democratic Party; Biden’s NARAL ratings may not be as glowing as Obama’s, but no serious pro-lifer thinks of the senator from Delaware as a pro-life legislator.

The talking points developed for Democratic leaders appearing on the pre-convention talk shows stressed the economy, housing, jobs, and other “middle-class” issues. This suggests that Democratic strategists are discounting the life issues as major factors in 2008. Those strategists have been surprised before; they may be surprised again. In any case, the country deserves something more serious than what it has been given by the Democratic leadership on what has been, and remains, one of the defining issues of our time.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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