Friday, October 5, 2012

The most important question in our politics

I discussed an essay by Notre Dame professor O. Carter Snead, "Protect the Weak and Vulnerable: The Primacy of the Life Issue," at the time it was published last year, but it is worth reviewing now as voters consider the issues and candidates only a month before the Nov. 6 election.

Here is Professor Snead's introduction:
Why should it matter whether the 2012 candidates for president are pro-life, especially given the vast array of other pressing issues facing the United States, including (though certainly not limited to) crushing national debt, widespread unemployment, existential fiscal strains on the social safety net, multiple wars, and the continuing menace of terrorism? Aren't the American people tired of the intractable bickering of a handful of extremist combatants in what seems to be an endless culture war? Unless you're a radical leftist or a right-wing Christian, why should any serious person in the public square waste time on these issues when there are so many real matters at stake at this moment in our nation's history?

These questions reflect an attitude that seems to be widely shared in certain circles of our polity. But I would respectfully submit that such questions reflect a badly misguided and inadequate understanding of the moral, cultural, legal, and political dispute of which the pro-life movement is a part.

At bottom, the "life issues"—including especially the conflicts over abortion and embryo-destructive research—involve the deepest and most fundamental public questions for a nation committed to liberty, equality, and justice. That is, the basic question in this context is who counts as a member of the human community entitled to moral concern and the basic protection of the law? Who counts as "one of us"? Equally important is the related question of who decides, and according to what sort of criteria? These are not narrow concerns commanding only the attention of a small number of highly motivated activists at the fringes of our society. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a public matter that is more important than this "question of membership."

The stakes could not be higher. "Persons" have human rights and are owed the moral respect and forbearance of others. "Nonpersons" live at the mercy of others, and are routinely instrumentalized, manipulated, or even destroyed in the name of the individual or collective interests of those who are indisputably persons. We, as a nation, must get this question of membership right. And it is imperative for the president of the United States to do so.

The pro-life movement offers the only answer to the question of "who counts" that is consistent with America's grounding norms of equality and justice. Accordingly, it is of paramount importance that the president of the United States be pro-life. My aim here is to show why this is so by giving a compressed account of the pro-life position (including the moral anthropology and foundational grounding goods in which it is nested), unpacking some of its key concrete entailments for law and politics, and explaining how the office of the U.S. presidency is uniquely situated to promote justice (or its opposite) in this profound context.
Be sure to read the entire piece.