Obama and the Enduring Untruths Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 25 May 2009

Along with enduring truths, there are some remarkably enduring non-truths; certain slogans that curiously hold on over the years, treated earnestly as moral principles, but utterly wanting in substance. One of the most persistent surfaced again a week ago in the commencement address at Notre Dame. It was delivered by that man Robert Royal has referred to as “a Certain Person speaking at a Certain Catholic University.” The most radical pro-abortion president of the United States offered, in the most amiable way, to find common ground with the pro-lifers. “Let’s work together,” he said, “to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies.” He offered also to collaborate in “making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.”

Those lines brought back the memory of a dinner with Henry Hyde within the first month or two of the Clinton Administration in 1993. Henry had been at a reception at the White House, where Bill Clinton put both of his hands on Henry’s shoulders. He avowed his deep respect for Congressman Hyde and remarked that they must find some way to work together. Al Gore chimed in that they should work together to make abortion “less necessary.” It was, as Hyde recalled, the kind of encounter that could make one gag (“two-fingers-down-the-throat kind of thing,” as one person at the table remarked). Were Clinton and Gore being clever, or did they not even themselves recognize any longer what was so bizarre in what they were offering?

Let’s try it this way: It’s Germany, 1934, and an official highly placed comes to the Jewish community in the persona of a peacemaker. “Let’s try to find some way of working together and make it ‘less necessary’ to deal harshly with ‘the Jewish problem.’” Perhaps, he suggests, we could find a way of transferring some of the businesses and the assets owned by Jews and putting them in the hands of deserving Aryans who have not been as successful in their lives.

What is left unsaid of course is the major premise: that the very condition of being Jewish is a ground quite sufficient to justify the punishment of a people by seizing their assets, removing them from the professions, barring them from schools of higher education, and finally delivering them to death camps. In the case of Obama, as with Clinton and Gore before him, the unspoken premises are again the most astounding – and even more astounding yet in being unnoticed. The techniques of contraception may work well or badly, as people seek, artfully or clumsily, to avoid “unintended pregnancies.” But it is simply taken for granted, as a point well beyond questioning now, that there is a “right,” even a “constitutional right” to destroy an innocent human life for reasons wholly of self-interest, indeed for reasons that need not rise above convenience.

The remedy for an “unintended pregnancy” used to be regarded as an adoption, not a lethal surgery. Adoption is offered by Obama, as though offered in generosity, for those people who do not care to invoke their constitutional right to destroy an innocent life in the womb. It is a gesture that leaves that essential “right” quite intact, without the slightest concession to the notion that the nascent life has even a shadow of a claim to our concern or respect. This is what Obama and the “Obama Catholics” apparently regard as an earnest mode of “working together”: concede their major premises, unqualified, unmodified, and give them credit for a largeness of spirit.

Of course, it is worth noting also that an “unintended pregnancy” becomes far more portentous when young people are unmarried, with no serious intention of committing themselves to a life together. Obama’s premises conveniently leave in place the assumption that there are no moral inhibitions worth taking seriously any longer on that notion of sex as virtually free, detached from commitments or requirements, taken even as a freewheeling pastime for young people in college, learning a little about everything.

Not too long after that dinner with Henry Hyde, Robert George, Gerard Bradley, and I found ourselves at a conference at St. Louis University, where there was an effort to lure us gently away from our resistance to abortion. One theologian from Boston College enjoined us not to press our moral views until we were prepared to do something serious about the poverty that encumbers so many people and makes them more inclined to abort the babies they cannot afford. Once again the lessons of the Jewish past came back: Did the Jews have to apologize for the shortfalls in the lives of others – did they have to give up their property rightly earned in order to purchase their right not to be killed because they were Jews, or because they stirred the envy and resentment of others?

And in our own day, is the same slogan offered to us again in the guise of a serious moral argument? Are we really obliged to carry out policies of redistribution – to lift the unfortunate out of poverty – in order to purchase our right to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among us from the taking of their lives? That is a price these people have no right to ask, and that we have no obligation, or right, to pay.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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