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Did the University of Notre Dame invite Sen. Stephen Douglas of nearby Illinois
to receive an honorary degree in 1858? That was the year Douglas was defending
the principle of choice: the right of western territories to make a choice
between permitting slavery and maintaining liberty. His opponent in the most
famous of American debates was Abraham Lincoln, also of Illinois. There and
elsewhere, Lincoln made a simple point based on natural law and natural right:
No man is in a position to will himself into slavery, so no one can commit
another to slavery. On top of that, the Union itself cannot survive half-slave
and half-free. Finally, the Declaration of Independence makes it brilliantly
clear that every human being is endowed by his Creator with an inalienable right
Lincoln hoped that the dreadful institution of slavery would die away, state
by state. He argued that slavery is incompatible with natural rights, and the
United States is a natural-rights republic.
Natural Rights: From Slavery to Abortion
What the question of slavery and the question of abortion have in common is
their basis in natural right. Just as every human being is endowed by his
Creator with the natural right to liberty, even more so is he endowed by his
Creator with the right to life.
Almost 40 years ago (during the presidential campaign of 1972), journalists
were arguing on the press bus. Some said that having an abortion is no different
from having an appendix taken out or tonsils removed. Others said that science
was on the side of those who were in favor of permitting abortions.
Alas, even then they were out of date. The famous cover of Life magazine with
photos of the developing infant in the womb had appeared in 1965. Since then,
public discussion of basic embryology has only made the reality in the womb much
more vivid–older siblings now see photographs of the budding sister or brother
within their mom on the refrigerator–what embryology had long taught: viz.,
that from the moment of conception, the organism growing in the womb of its
mother is human. It is not the embryo of a cocker spaniel, or a camel, or a
donkey. Also, not only is it the embryo of an indisputably human being, its DNA
gives it a unique, individual identity. It comes not only from its father, and
not only from its mother. It is a distinct human embryo–distinct in its
identity from both its parents. Today, science is on the side of those who say
that from the first moment of conception abortion takes away a human life. The
Declaration of Independence insists that every individual human being has a
natural right to life.
There are some people who still claim that what is aborted is so small and so
without human form that it may be treated as a thing, merely discarded. For
them, the choice of the mother takes precedence over the choice of the
individual, just as under the Douglas plan the choice of the state takes
precedence over the liberty of the individual.
I doubt very much whether the University of Notre Dame would ever give an
honorary degree to a slave owner or a propagandist for slavery. Until recently,
I used to doubt that Notre Dame would ever give an honorary degree and its
highest platform–its commencement address–to someone who was one of the
nation’s strongest proponents of abortion. In the eleven weeks since he became
president, Barack Obama has opened up every avenue to abortion presented to him.
He has begun razing every obstacle put up against the spread of this evil
institution in the past–beginning with the Mexico City ban, and accelerating
with extreme pro-death-in-the-womb nominees to key offices, promises to kill the
Hyde Amendment, and other actions.
Pro-abortion advocates are now pressing the president to repeal the ban
against a horrific practice, partial-birth abortion, and also the Born-Alive
Act. Both of these acts have had tremendous impact on the public consciousness
of what abortion actually is. Nothing has done so much to make the public aware
of the ones who are aborted–their visible shape, survivability, and acute pain.
Infants assaulted in the womb in an attempt to kill them, who somehow survived,
were discarded in the garbage, left to shiver and die alone. In the whole
country, no more than 15 percent dare to support killing infants alive, whether
in the breech a moment before birth, or after a botched abortion. The Democrats
in Congress went along with the Born-Alive Act without making an issue of
Often, doctors and nurses have been tormented by the incompatibility of two
tasks in which they have been required to engage: In one room, they work all
night to save the life of a baby in the early stages of development; in the next
room just afterwards, they are asked to help kill a baby not a day further along
in its mother’s pregnancy. Apart from the shock to their raw consciences, this
shock to their emotions seems too much to ask of anyone. The conscience clause
now protects doctors and nurses whose consciences revolt against abortions. Just
as abolitionists once revolted against slavery, so do the irrepressible emotions
of many doctors and nurses scream in protest against abortion at any stage in a
President Obama has said he will repeal this protection for the consciences
of doctors and nurses.
Notre Dame’s Douglas Kmiec and Cathleen Kaveny are among the Catholic
professors who told us that President Obama would actually lower the number of
abortions. I hope that they are counting. It is certainly difficult at this
point to see any obstacle to abortion that President Obama will allow to stand.
The Kmiec/Kaveny tangle of illusions underlies Notre Dame’s rationale for
inviting the most extreme proponent of abortion in American presidential history
to receive the university’s highest honor.
A defense of slavery would have barred him. His support of harsh offenses
against human beings in the womb does not disqualify him?
Poverty and Abortion
Profs. Kmiec and Kaveny used to argue that President Obama’s reductions in
poverty will bring abortions down. That proposition does not seem empirically
valid. Even the poorest households in our big cities spend much more money each
year than they report as income. They have far more money at their disposal than
the poor of two generations ago, when abortions were far more rare. Poverty is
not so acute today, but abortions in some sizeable areas–in Washington, D.C.,
for example–now exceed live births.
Moreover, existing abortion statistics in America are skewed by the fact that
black women make up about 11 percent of the national female population, but have
more than 36 percent of all abortions in America. Put another way, of the 47
million children aborted since 1973, some 16 million have been black. If those
children had been allowed to live, the black population would today be about 50
percent larger than it is–about 49 million blacks instead of 33 million.
Think of the talents that have been lost. Think about the lost contributions
to their own families and to the nation. Think how much stronger our Social
Security funds would be today, if all those 47 million aborted (of all races)
had come of age, and were creating new wealth, and paying into Social
Taking the black abortion rate and abortion numbers out of the equation, it
would be interesting to check the hypothesis that a reduction in poverty reduces
abortion. Is it poverty that makes the difference? Or out-of-wedlock
pregnancies? Or something else?
What proportion of abortions among whites and Asians, for example, coincides
with poverty? Have the numbers or proportions of abortion among the middle and
more highly educated class gone up since 1973? Do fairly well-off women at
Boston College or the University of Notre Dame have more abortions today than
they did three decades ago? Getting people out of poverty, while good for many
other purposes, does not necessarily decrease abortions.
Yet even if there were evidence of a relationship between a reduction of
poverty and a reduction of abortions, President Obama plainly does not have as
his primary priority reducing poverty. That is not the direction in which his
economic actions point. Quite the reverse; every economic move he has made since
his inauguration seems to point to the constriction of economic activity, loss
of entrepreneurial confidence, and punishment for job-creators, investors, and
entrepreneurs. There can be no new employees, alas, without employers; no new
jobs without new capital investments.
Again, one of President Clinton’s great achievements was to sign the Welfare
Reform Act, which set time limits to welfare benefits and demanded work from the
fit and the able. Welfare rolls soon dropped precipitously in most states (down
by one-third or more). Morale among the newly working population, observers
noted, was far higher than before. Those who previously felt no pride in being
on welfare experienced real pride in their new economic independence.
President Obama promises to have that act repealed. And that will help
morale, reduce dependency, and lower the number of abortions? Reason and
experience counsel skepticism.
The War in Iraq
Another argument the Kmiec/Kaveny school produced in support of Obama is that
he will end the war in Iraq, which they seem to think was illegal and, on
balance, evil. Well, as far as the facts go, it appears that President Bush’s
war in Iraq produced a hard-won victory (not necessarily long-lasting) over the
die-hard followers of Saddam, “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” Iranian infiltrators, and
other assorted Yemeni and Syrian homicide bombers and terrorists. The
depredations these fascist forces committed against democratic Iraqis finally
ignited revulsion among their victims. A fierce rebellion against al-Qaeda
caught fire among their former allies. These rebels joined with the largely
Shiite democratic parties and supported the Americans in the final stages of
this precarious victory.
On top of that, the much-derided “surge” worked magnificently. Gen. David
Petraeus turned out to have a better grasp of Iraqi reality than Senators Reid,
Clinton, and Obama, to name but three.
Most impressively of all, Iraqi democracy seems to be growing slowly but
steadily from strength to strength. Violence in Baghdad is at lower levels than
in Chicago–although, granted, Chicago does not experience bomb attacks killing
20 or 30 at a time.
Iraq today boasts the largest functioning democracy among the Arab states. It
is certainly far ahead of Iran, Syria, and others of its neighbors–even Egypt
across the Mediterranean. There is new hope for the protection of human rights,
the liberation and education of women, and a new level of religious liberty.
Now that he has been fully briefed on the available intelligence on
terrorism, on Iraq, and on Iran, President Obama has been pushed by facts into
positions quite close to those of President Bush. This has dismayed many on the
left. But it is a tribute to the facts, honestly studied. The gains in Iraq are
too hard-won to squander. President Obama has now acknowledged that a contingent
of 50,000 Marines and soldiers will remain in Iraq (as in South Korea) until the
beginning of 2012. One may doubt that he will remove them during that election
Abortion Is Not Like War and Capital Punishment
Finally, Cardinal Ratzinger cut through the Kmiec/Kaveny argument about the
relative moral importance of the issues of war, poverty, capital punishment, and
abortion, in his famous letter to the American bishops during the 2004
Not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia. For
example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the
application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war he would not
for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy
Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war,
and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may
still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse
to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among
Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with
regard to abortion and euthanasia.
I respect Doug Kmiec, Cathleen Kaveny, and others for publicly putting
themselves on the line to support Obama, based on their position regarding the
war in Iraq and their preferred strategy and tactics for reducing abortions in
the United States and around the world. But their arguments are not very
Even weaker have been the arguments by the leadership of the University of
Notre Dame. It may be that President Obama is looking for a chance at Notre Dame
to announce a new position in favor of life and against death. But that seems
wildly naïve. It may be that Notre Dame is hoping for an argument, a discussion,
an engagement, a dialogue on the side of life. Yet it seems that this is not the
time nor the place for that–not at a commencement address, not given the
glowing citation for the honorary degree, not with so much going at on at
graduation. This is a time to shower the president of the United States with
President Obama would feel perfectly entitled to use this honor from Notre
Dame as leverage in favor of his full-tilt support for the falsely named
“Freedom of Choice Act,” whose real point is not freedom, but the suppression of
all consciences that find abortion an evil like slavery.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion,
Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.
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