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 to liberty.
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Alas, even then they were out of date.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.
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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 it.
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 child’s development.