Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Questions for President Obama after his Notre Dame speech

On Sunday President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. It was controversial -- and protested by many pro-lifers -- because Notre Dame (a Catholic school) also chose to give him an honorary degree in law, despite the fact that Obama's radical support for abortion on demand and embryo destruction contradicts basic Church teaching about the dignity of the human person.

The problems with honoring and validating the president's position in this way have been thoroughly detailed by Catholic thinkers like Gerard Bradley and others. Notre Dame, writes George Weigel, "bestowed an honorary doctorate of laws on a man determined to enshrine in law what the Catholic Church regards as a fundamental injustice."

I think Francis Beckwith puts it well: “Unless the university does not believe that the Church’s understanding of the moral law is true and knowable, it can no more in good conscience award an honorary doctorate of laws to a lawyer who rejects the humanity of the proper subjects of law than it could in good conscience award an honorary doctorate in science to a geocentric astronomer who rejects the deliverances of the discipline he claims to practice.”

Bradley asks: "Why doesn’t full-throttle support for a grave injustice such as abortion disqualify one from university honors? I am confident that no one — not even a high-office holder — who publicly embraced a less respectable injustice, such as racism or anti-Semitism, would be fĂȘted here. In moral truth if not in civil law, lethal discrimination against the unborn is at least as monstrous."

Here, though, I want to address some of the statements Obama made in his speech, and ask some questions.

"Those who speak out against [embryonic] stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved."

That's right. The question (which the president never seems to address) is whether the embryo is one of us, a valuable human person (like a child with juvenile diabetes). If so, then embryo-destructive research is gravely immoral, for one cannot kill other innocent human beings so that "their son's or daughter's hardships can be relieved."

Question: If a promising kind of stem cell research is supported by both sides of this debate (induced pluripotent stem cell research), and has the potential to make the controversial use of human embryos for research scientifically obsolete, why would the president rescind a previous executive order requiring research into that area?

"Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions."

Question: On Obama's pro-choice view, why is abortion a "heart-wrenching decision"? What are the "moral and spiritual dimensions" of this act? And why would it be wrong for a woman to make the decision casually?

"So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do."

Question: On the president's pro-choice view, why should we want to "reduce the number of women seeking abortions"? No one talks about reducing the number of tonsillectomies. Is abortion somehow morally different than removing one's tonsils? If so, how? And if abortion is a moral tragedy, why does Obama want to allow it -- and even promote it with tax dollars, in the United States and around the world?

Question: If Obama wants to reduce the number of abortions, why does he want to make every taxpayer fund elective abortions, which studies clearly show increases the number of abortions? Why won't he support even the most modest, meager limitations on abortion? Why does he support the radical Freedom of Choice Act, which would likely result in hundreds of thousands of more abortions?

Question: If the president wants to "provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term," why did he commit during the campaign to de-funding pregnancy care centers that provide that support?

Question: If Obama wants to "honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause," why is his administration moving to rescind a Bush order enforcing basic conscience protections for health care workers who don't want to be involved in abortion?

The president's speech was yet another example of the divergence between Obama's rhetoric and his actions/actual beliefs. He talked about common ground, but his positions on right-to-life issues allow for none of it.

"We must find a way to live together as one human family."

Yes. But the very question at issue in the abortion and embryo research debates surrounding Obama's visit is who qualifies as part of the human family (are unborn human beings included?). That's how fundamental Obama's disagreement with the Catholic Church (and all pro-lifers) is. And that's why honoring Obama was such a terrible mistake for a supposedly pro-life institution.

Update: Yuval Levin explains why pro-lifers actually have reason to be optimistic following Obama's speech: "Although it was certainly not his intention, the president’s remarks point to the profound and growing weakness of the case for America’s radical abortion laws."

Ramesh Ponnuru has a fantastic analysis:

President Obama's speech at Notre Dame yesterday is another sign that pro-lifers are slowly winning the political battles over abortion. It was not the speech of a man who is confident that his position is right and popular. It was the speech of someone who is trying to minimize a problem--which is what the association with abortion assuredly is for the Democratic party.

More voters have left the Democrats over abortion than have joined it. And the public has been moving in a pro-life direction for years. (The latest Gallup poll even has a majority of Americans calling themselves pro-life.) Obama wants to defend a status quo in which abortion is effectively legal through all stages of pregnancy and abortion policy is sealed off from democratic decision-making. He even wants to make taxpayers pay for abortion. So at Notre Dame, he handled the political difficulty deftly. He didn't try to make the case for his views on abortion and related issues. He just plead for mutual understanding, civility, and the search for common ground. All of those are perfectly valid goals, of course, but they are also the ones you'd expect to see emphasized by the side that's defending a politically dangerous position.

Pro-lifers often get annoyed when they see politicians with hard-line records in favor of legal and subsidized abortion talk, as Obama did, about how much he wants to reduce abortion. But that type of rhetoric, however little follow-through it generates, is itself a concession to the moral and political force of the pro-life case. The more politicians who favor unrestricted, subsidized abortion talk about what a tragedy it is, the more they undermine their own premises. If it's such a terrible thing, why fund it? Why not allow states to try different methods of discouraging it, including restrictions?

Obama has handled the politics of abortion deftly. He is doing the best he can from a position of weakness.