Good question, bad answers

David Gibson raises a number of important questions in his last post. But one of them—the one mentioned in his title—seems to me to be preeminently important, and I'd like to focus on it here.

If it's true that both Obama and Biden managed to avoid sounding as clueless as Nancy Pelosi (a very modest achievement), it's also true that their responses suggest that neither of them has thought very carefully about abortion as an ethical and legal problem—rather than, say, an electoral or sectarian problem. They both continue to reach for the term "theology," perhaps because they think it will convince the religious voter of their seriousness and respect.

I, like many other religious voters, have no doubt of their seriousness: theirs has been, from the beginning, the more serious of the two campaigns, and the more respectful of the voter's intelligence. But abortion is not, or not primarily, a theological issue, and so Biden's talk about pluralism and devout disagreement is not very helpful. In fact, it is very unhelpful, because it is a distraction. If human life begins at conception, and if every human life deserves the same legal protection, then talk of "ensoulment" is beside the point and anachronistic. I understand that these are big ifs, but my point is that these prolife claims are based not on special revelation or Catholic dogma but on embryological evidence and ethical reflection. If Biden were asked whether the lives of one-year-old children should be protected by law, he probably would not answer that while he's prepared to accept, as a matter of faith, that a one-year-old girl has the same rights he does, he's not willing to make this judgment for other people in a pluralistic society.

He would not say this mostly because almost everyone agrees that one-year-olds are human beings and—to complicate things slightly—human persons. And we can all be thankful for that. But the reason many people offer for withholding legal protection from embryonic and fetal life turns out to be a reason one could (and a few do) use to argue for scrapping or reducing legal protections for one-year-olds. For a one-year-old child, like the unborn, is not a fully developed human being; and, again like the unborn, she is not physically independent. If the argument is that the fetus, while perhaps a human being, is not yet a human person because she does not possess some minimal set of distinctively human properties or faculties, such as self-awareness or speech, then it is an argument that could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to everyone except fully mature adults in perfect health. So the newborn would have more claim to our protection than the fetus, the healthy five-year-old child more claim than the newborn (or the disabled five-year-old child), the adolescent more claim than the five-year-old, etc. Of course we are not used to thinking in terms of such a graduated scheme, but do we have a good reason not to?

This is a difficult topic, but it is also an important one. I do not fault Obama and Biden for not offering fully developed theories on Sunday morning chat shows. I do fault them for making it sound as if this controversy were about private religious scruples. In fact, no controversy could be more public, in the proper sense of that term. It is an argument about the scope of the community these candidates would like to lead and govern.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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