August 22, 2008


The Best Laid Traps Of Conservatives and Con Men: How Obama found himself in trouble this time: charting the ignominious history of "born alive" abortion legislation. (Damon Linker, August 21, 2008, The New Republic)

As recently as six weeks ago, Barack Obama hoped to use his moderation and facility with religiously informed rhetoric to inspire a portion of the evangelical vote to defect to the Democratic Party in 2008--a move that might usher in a broader electoral realignment. But events during the past week may very well have derailed this plan for good. On right-wing websites, cable news programs, and near-mainstream newspapers, conservatives are doing their indignant best to spread the word that, as an Illinois state legislator, Obama refused to vote for a bill that protects a child "born alive" in a botched abortion. That makes the senator's record on abortion, in the words of Commentary's Peter Wehner, "as extreme as one can possibly be." As evidence that Obama's position is (in Wehner's words again) "extreme, inhumane, and outright brutal," conservatives are pointing out that only 15 members of the U.S. House voted against the federal version of the bill--the Born Alive Infant Protection Act of 2002--and that it passed the Senate by voice vote with no dissent.

The campaign's response to the controversy shows that it recognizes the damage it could do to Obama's ambitions: Instead of defending the vote, Obama and his surrogates have sought to excuse it. [...]

Democrats have every reason to lament this turn of events, but they should not consider it a matter of simple bad luck. On the contrary, Obama, in failing to "support" children "born alive," has fallen into a trap meticulously constructed and laid by the theoconservative intellectuals who have exercised so much influence over the religious right these past several decades.

The Born Alive Infant Protection Act is the brain-child of theocon Hadley Arkes, the Edward N. Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The roots of the bill go back 20 years, to President George H. W. Bush's general election contest with Michael Dukakis. In a debating kit he was asked to prepare for the Republican candidate, Arkes made an extraordinary series of assertions. Abortion, he argued, could be considered a constitutional right only by denying the personhood of the baby prior to birth. But once this premise was implanted in the law, there was no principled way to outlaw any abortion at any time during pregnancy, right up to--and perhaps even beyond--birth. After all, biological science and sonogram technology both showed that the fetus in utero is substantially similar to a baby outside the womb. The "right to choose" therefore implied a right to infanticide--or as Arkes shockingly put it, a "right to a dead baby." As a rationalist, Arkes was convinced that such an implication at the level of principle would inevitably become a reality, as the culture slid down the slippery slope on which it had been precariously placed by the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade.

Faced with the prospect of legalized infanticide in the United States, Arkes urged the first President Bush to make what sounded like an extremely modest proposal. Congress should pass a law declaring that a child born alive after a botched late-term abortion--a child no longer present within his or her mother and thus no longer dependent upon her "choice"--is subject to the full protection of the laws, as is any other person. Not only would such a law prevent explicit acts of infanticide, but, far more importantly, it would also "plant a premise" in the law that would eventually lead in the opposite direction of Roe, emphatically affirming the personhood of the newborn child and thus raising the morally troubling question of whether that personhood could really be denied to the same entity just seconds earlier, when it resided in the mother's womb. Arkes was convinced that just as the logic of Roe led inexorably toward a right to infanticide, so a declaration of the personhood of the infant "born alive" would have the effect of persuading large numbers of Americans--and perhaps also a decisive number of Supreme Court Justices--to reject abortion-on-demand and, ultimately, to favor outlawing it altogether.

Conceding that his vote is indefensible is a healthy first step.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2008 2:53 PM
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