“When does life begin?” Good question. But there are more…
For all the wilful disparaging of the MSM by the GOP and its allies on the Christian right, there is a good argument to be made that the “media” (whatever that is, today) is reading straight out of the McCain playbook. The latest evidence was Joe Biden’s appearance on “Meet the Press” yesterday. Once again reprising Rick Warren’s script from last month’s Saddleback Forum, Tom Brokaw asked Biden (as he asked Nancy Pelosi two weeks earlier) when he thinks life begins. (Warren actually phrased it, “What point is a baby entitled to human rights?”)
Obama has acknowledged that his answer was “too flip” when he said it was “above my pay grade,” though hardly moreso than the bumper sticker slogan McCain later gave as an answer. Here are further remarks on the topic, via Mark Silk’s “Spiritual Politics,” that Obama gave to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:
“What I intended to say is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of humility about understanding when does the soul enter into … It’s a pretty tough question. And so, all I meant to communicate was that I don’t presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions.”
In the ABC interview, Obama goes on to give the answer he wishes he’d given: “What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue, that it’s one that families struggle with all the time. And that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions.
“I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure the young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.
Not that this would satisy those who it wouldn’t satisfy. In responding to Brokaw yesterday (transcript here), Biden did better. He said:
BROKAW: If Senator Obama comes to you and says, “When does life begin? Help me out here, Joe,” as a Roman Catholic, what would you say to him?
SEN. BIDEN: I’d say, “Look, I know when it begins for me.” It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, “Well, what about fascism?” Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism’s all right? Fascism isn’t a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.
MR. BROKAW: But if you, you believe that life begins at conception, and you’ve also voted for abortion rights…
SEN. BIDEN: No, what a voted against curtailing the right, criminalizing abortion. I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously based view that it’s a moment of conception. There is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that’s existed. Back in “Summa Theologia,” when Thomas Aquinas wrote “Summa Theologia,” he said there was no–it didn’t occur until quickening, 40 days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith? And that’s the reason I haven’t. But then again, I also don’t support a lot of other things. I don’t support public, public funding. I don’t, because that flips the burden. That’s then telling me I have to accept a different view. This is a matter between a person’s God, however they believe in God, their doctor and themselves in what is always a–and what we’re going to be spending our time doing is making sure that we reduce considerably the amount of abortions that take place by providing the care, the assistance and the encouragement for people to be able to carry to term and to raise their children.
That’s not sufficient or correct for many Catholic leaders. Rocco Palmo notes that Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, WI, saw the interview then went to celebrate Mass, tossed aside his prepared homily, and proceeded to critique Biden with “money quotes all over the place.” Bill Donohue “jumped on this today,” his press release states: “By casting abortion as a matter of religion, Obama and Biden are seeking to take an issue which has universal significance and turn it into a parochial quarrel.”
The debate is likely to continue, and worsen, I suspect–with little light for all the heat. It seems they are mixing all sorts of fruit, not just apples and oranges, as there was a debate about ensoulment and when a human being becomes a human person, but debating that does not automatically connect with abortion, which remains morally wrong, and neither connect to Biden’s point of how one legislates religious views in a pluralistic society. Or, indeed, what other policies could work to these same ends. All but forgotten in the debate over the Democratic platform language on abortion is the fact that the GOP platform actually deleted this sentence from the section on abortion:
We invite all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion;
Which raises some questions of balance on this topic. For example, when will we see Sarah Palin interviewed on “Meet the Press”? ABC’s Charles Gibson will be sitting down with her later this week in Alaska for her first interview as the nominee in the two weeks since she was picked. Not exactly “Meet the Press,” but it’s a start. Hopefully. Brokaw and everyone else is insisting on talking to her, but McCain’s campaign seems to be controlling all access very tightly.
In the coming weeks, it might be a good idea, it seems to me, if we could move beyond the “when life begins” question to asking McCain, for example, how that squares with his support for stem cell research. Or asking all the candidates, how their answer to the question plays out in terms of public policy, which is really what is at stake. It seems to be a dereliction of journalistic duty to stick only with a script written by Rick Warren and not to take the issue any further. Moreover, there seems to be a double-standard at work, as Catholics are held to a certain consistency while evangelicals or non-denominational Christians are allowed much greater leeway. Is that a function of religion? Or politics?
For example, Sarah Palin is universally hailed as “pro-life.” Yet during her 2006 gubernatorial capaign she said she wasn’t interested in talking about abortion and wouldn’t do much about it if elected:
“She would not seek out this issue. She feels like there are several other issues that are paramount to the future of the state,” said Curtis Smith, spokesman for the Palin campaign…Smith said the important thing about Palin’s abortion views is that she wouldn’t be proposing new anti-abortion legislation, and that while her views on the subject are firm, she’s not running for office to advocate for them. He accused the Knowles campaign of trying to politicize the issue. “Tony Knowles [her opponent, who she defeated] is working to divide Alaskans by making abortion an issue,” Smith said.
Similarly, she has been touted as backing abstinence-only sex education–because of this exchange in an Eagle Forum questionnaire (the link to the full questionnaire has apparently been removed):
EAGLE: “Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?”
PALIN: “Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.”
Yet as commenter Stuart Buck pointed out in an earlier thread, a Saturday story in the LATimes shows that a few weeks later Palin was calling herself “pro-contraception” education for teens–at odds not only with her earlier statement, but also with John McCain’s views:
…in August of that year , Palin was asked during a KTOO radio debate if “explicit” programs include those that discuss condoms. Palin said no and called discussions of condoms “relatively benign.”
“Explicit means explicit,” she said. “No, I’m pro-contraception, and I think kids who may not hear about it at home should hear about it in other avenues. So I am not anti-contraception. But, yeah, abstinence is another alternative that should be discussed with kids. I don’t have a problem with that. That doesn’t scare me, so it’s something I would support also.”
Be good to explore these discrepancies as avidly as Catholics are being held to account for their views.
Another point: When will we see McCain and/or Palin go before a crowd–say another Compassion Forum–that would like his views on the full range of social justice issues of concern to Christians? Obama went into the lion’s den when he went to Saddleback. Be interesting if McCain could do likewise.