The Corner

Above My Pay Grade . . . Four Years Later

Four years ago yesterday, on August 16, 2008, then-senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain joined Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., for the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency.”

The most memorable moment of the evening, by far, came when Pastor Warren asked Senator Obama about his views on human life.

Coming only a few days after his notorious remarks about bitter midwesterners clinging to their guns and religion, Obama’s now infamous response was but one in a long line of comments and gestures that have come to exemplify that galling blend of condescension and nonchalance that, for many, define this president.

Yet the flippancy of Obama’s response — that answers to such questions are, “above my pay grade” — overshadowed a very important and revealing aspect of his answer. Or rather, lost in the controversy about the tone of Obama’s response was the question that was actually asked.

#more#Everyone seems to remember Warren’s question as “When does human life begin?” This is probably because that is the question Obama (flippantly) answered. But that wasn’t the question. What Pastor Warren did ask was a much more direct question, a question much less easily obfuscated by the supposed vagaries of science or theology: “At what point does a baby get human rights?”

Taken at face value, that’s not even a question about abortion — unless there’s some reason to assume a “baby” is unborn. As Warren asked it, the question was not a matter of science or religion. It was (and is) a question about the legal and moral status of certain acknowledged members of the human community.

In other words, it is a fundamentally political question and points directly to the fundamental political question: Who is, and who is not, a member of the community? No serious politician, still less a president, can be indifferent to such a question.

Moreover, it is a question that has actual legal significance — beginning with the Constitution which, while it may be silent on the status of unborn persons, speaks explicitly about “born” persons. Ignoring or dodging the question of when life begins is one thing; ignoring or dodging the question of who has protected rights under the lawas it actually exists right now is something else entirely.

So when does a human baby get rights? When she’s born? When she turns one? When she gets tenure?

Most people who aren’t Peter Singer would agree that, whatever the biological, moral, or legal status of the unborn child, a live newborn human has human rights and is deserving of protection. Heck, that’s something about which even NARAL agrees.

So the “easy” pro-choice answer to Warren’s question is that a baby gets human rights “at birth.” While many (myself included) find that answer deeply inadequate and even arbitrary with respect to what the baby actually is — i.e., a living member of the human species — such an answer at least pertains to a significant event; one traditionally weighted with immense spiritual, moral, and social significance.

“Birth” is also an answer that more or less accords with current U.S. law, including the Roe regime. In this country, life’s consistent legal protection begins at birth. So unless one wants to concede that the United States’s defense of basic human rights falls short by failing to protect the human rights of unborn humans — an awkward admission for someone who favors abortion rights — “birth” is a nice, safe answer.

Of course, even if he had wanted to answer Rick Warren’s actual question, “birth” wasn’t an answer Barack Obama could have given without putting himself in a very tricky spot.

If a baby gets human rights at birth, then Barack Obama has voted to deny human rights. As a state senator, Obama actively opposed the Illinois Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, refusing to grant legal protections to living, breathing, post-birth babies — regardless of whether they were born as the result of labor (premature or otherwise) or induced abortion. In other words, Obama explicitly denied the extension of legal protection for basic human rights to babies who have already been born.

As Peter Kirsanow wrote four years ago (before Saddleback, I might add):

If there was ever a question that goes directly to a candidate’s capacity for compassion, it’s “At what point is a baby entitled to be treated as a human being?”

Perhaps now that Obama’s pay grade has moved up from senator to president, and he’s had a few years to think it over, someone should ask him that again.

— Stephen P. White is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

Most Popular

White House

Another Warning Sign

The Mueller report is of course about Russian interference in the 2016 election and about the White House's interference in the resulting investigation. But I couldn’t help also reading the report as a window into the manner of administration that characterizes the Trump era, and therefore as another warning ... Read More
White House

The Mueller Report Should Shock Our Conscience

I've finished reading the entire Mueller report, and I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections detailed by the Special Counsel's Office. We've become accustomed to Trump making up ... Read More

What’s So Great about Western Civilization

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Redacted: Harm to Ongoing Matter), One of the things I tell new parents is something that was told to me when my daughter still had that ... Read More
Film & TV

Jesus Is Not the Joker

Actors love to think they can play anything, but the job of any half-decent filmmaker is to tell them when they’re not right for a part. If the Rock wants to play Kurt Cobain, try to talk him out of it. Adam Sandler as King Lear is not a great match. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix. He’s playing Jesus ... Read More

Screw York Yankees

You are dead to me. You are a collection of Fredos. The cock has crowed, you pathetic sniveling jerks. The team I have rooted for since 1965, when I first visited the House that Ruth Built, where I hawked peanuts and ice cream a lifetime ago, watched countless games (Guidry striking out 18!), has gotten so ... Read More