Topic: Government & Politics

Abortion, Values, and Senator Kerry
(7/12/2004)

A personal note: There are certain public occurrences that can cause a professional ethicist to despair, give up, and begin the long considered transition to a career in paleontology.

Senator John Kerry's recent statement that he believes life begins at conception was one of those occurrences. At a time when the Democratic candidate has announced that he intends to mount a campaign about "values," he has raised serious questions regarding whether he even understands the meaning of the term. And yet Kerry's jaw-dropping announcement that he "opposes abortion" has been largely ignored by political allies, foes, and the media. If this continues, it will be powerful evidence that America cannot recognize a dangerous ethical vacuum in a potential leader, even when he waves it in our faces.

Here is what Kerry said in an interview with an Iowa newspaper:

''I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life begins at conception. But I don't take my Catholic beliefs, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant, on a Jew, or an atheist who doesn't share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."

What does this statement mean?

Kerry is saying unequivocally that he believes a fetus is a human life, and thus that he must necessarily believe that abortion is the taking of a human life…murder. Yet Kerry has for many years aggressively and vocally supported the right to abortion on demand, and opposed any legislation modifying or qualifying it, including parental notification requirements. NARAL gives him a perfect rating, reserved for the most unyielding allies of the abortion rights movement. Kerry has, according to his own words, devoted a significant amount of his influence and power to supporting not merely a position he says he does not share, but also a practice that he himself defines as murder!

Let us examine the possible explanations for this inexplicable position.

Possible Explanation One. Kerry will not stand up for what he believes is right, even when it involves (by his own analysis) the taking of innocent life. This is, or should be, a disqualifying feature in any elected official, for any office in a republic. A public servant's values are his compass; if these do not guide his actions, then they will be guided by crass political and selfish considerations alone. It is a position of moral cowardice.

Possible Explanation Two. Kerry believes that ethical and moral standards are purely subjective, and that all value systems are equally valid. This thoroughly discredited (but, sadly, not uncommon) view says, "I may think what you're doing is murder (or theft, or rape, or extortion, or terrorism), but if you think it's OK, that's your right." This ethical stance is a call to anarchy, and an assault on the principle of the rule of law. It is, in fact, as assertion that societal ethical values do not, can not, and should not exist.

Possible Explanation Three. Kerry is genuinely confused. In his interview, he explained his conduct by claiming that it is inappropriate for an elected official to use his religion-based beliefs to guide his policies. But the Constitution-mandated separation of church and state has never been interpreted to mean that it is inappropriate for a politician to support any value or position consistent with religious teachings. How could it? Does Kerry think it is inappropriate for a politician to oppose theft, for example, because the position is in concert with the Ten Commandments? Could Kerry possibly maintain that beliefs learned from parents, education or experience are a valid foundation for legislative action, but beliefs formed in church are not?

Senator Kerry's stated position is doubly disturbing because he has not merely taken a passive position on abortion, which would seem to be the most logical conduct flowing out of his peculiar stance. No, he has been a pro-active advocate for abortion, something that he says he believes is wrong. Kerry has promised NARAL, for example, that one of his first acts as President will be to sign an executive order rescinding restrictions on partial-birth abortion. Seldom, if ever, has a political figure professed such zeal for violating his own principles.

As amazing as Kerry's comments has been the near total lack of public or media outrage provoked by them. Yet this should be coming from all sides of the political spectrum:

  • Abortion supporters should be alarmed that their supposed champion rejects the core of their argument. What if he becomes president and decides to act on his conscience? And isn't it just a bit unsettling to have one's support of a candidate rest on confidence that he will not act on his conscience?

  • Abortion opponents should question the basic scruples of a candidate who admits to crusading to protect a legal right that he personally believes condones and facilitates murder.

  • Citizens who do not consider abortion a primary concern should be troubled that a man who is willing to act against his conscience and deeply held beliefs is on the verge of becoming a national leader and role model.

At least one pro-choice columnist, The Boston Globe's Eileen McNamara, has written perceptively on the matter:

Conscience is a moral concept, as well as a religious one, after all. If you believe that life begins at conception, doesn't your conscience compel you to vote in concert with that belief? Just as, if your conscience tells you capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder, you would vote against the death penalty? Or if you believe that gay marriage is a fundamental civil right, you would vote against a constitutional amendment to ban it?

I, and I suspect many others who support legal abortion, had mistakenly assumed that, on this very personal issue, Kerry's conscience was at odds with the teaching of his church. His consistent record in favor of abortion rights, family planning, and reproductive freedom was, I thought, a courageous reflection of an independent mind.

Now, I don't know what to think. I cannot respectfully disagree with him as I do with an abortion opponent whose conscience prompts her to work to unseat lawmakers like Kerry. I understand her. She is acting on principle, lobbying to change laws antithetical to her conscience. I don't understand him, voting consistently in opposition to what he now tells us is one of his core beliefs.

There is one interpretation of Kerry's statements that puts him is a better light, and that is, ironically, if he is lying. Then his statement is simply a clumsy, cynical and insulting attempt to mollify Catholic critics while preserving his pro-abortion support. Lying is certainly unethical, but it is hardly unusual in a politician, especially one running for office. And it is far better, in terms of judging Kerry's fitness to hold office, for him to be a sometime liar than ethically inert. Ethically inert is the only fit description of someone who cheers on what he believes to be murder because of his fundamental misunderstanding of what personal values require of an individual, his confusion over the moral obligations of elected officials, or simply because he suffers from a deficit in courage, integrity and principle.

We can only hope John Kerry is lying. And if he is not, we must hope that when the campaign begins debating values, the media and the public will notice that this presidential candidate is unwilling to stand up for his own.

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