The Corner

The Washington Post On Consistency

The Post objects to Tom DeLay’s speech against federal funding for embryo-destructive research for two reasons.

First, it says DeLay is guilty of “irresponsible rhetoric” in saying that the other side would “fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation.” You could object to the word “dismemberment” on hypertechnical grounds, I suppose. But what DeLay said is a fair summary of why most opponents of the bill object to it. Is there another wording the Post would have preferred? Or are those of us who object to the bill to be silent about it because the Post, for reasons undisclosed, thinks our speaking up would be “irresponsible”? (Where would the goo-goo editorialist be without that word? And was the Post irresponsible ten years ago, when it had better editorialists working on these issues?)

Second, it says that DeLay, if he is to be consistent, should also 1) try to ban the freezing of embryos in IVF clinics as a form of torture and 2) try to ban the common fertility-clinic practice of “discarding” “unused” human embryos. There are specific logical problems with the first point, but let me address the general argument that to be principled a politician must either try to prohibit all moral evils or none of them.

Let’s say a politician was in a place and time where people approved stoning homosexuals to death–which is not at all a theoretical possibility; there have been places and times like this. Let’s say that politician himself believes that the principle of the equal dignity of all human beings entails not stoning homosexuals to death, not criminalizing their sexual conduct, and allowing same-sex couples to marry. There are serious people who believe all these things flow from a valid principle of equality. Leaving aside whether those people are right about these conclusions, what’s a politician with those convictions to do?

If he comes out for same-sex marriage, he may lose the ability to make progress on the stoning front. (Or, to transport the debate to, say, Texas in the 1990s: A politician who argued for same-sex marriage might very well lose his ability to make progress in getting rid of anti-sodomy laws.) Since political prudence militates against his pushing for the full realization of his principle, is he therefore to do nothing? If he works within the bounds of the possible, does he therefore have no principles?

The Washington Post’s editorial is titled “An Illogical Standard.” But its own standard is one it would not apply to any other issue. You could, of course, make the same debater’s points in reverse: The Post, to be consistent, should be for infanticide.

Note also that the Post’s argument tends to validate slippery-slope fears about the sanctity of life. If we hadn’t allowed the routine killing of human embryos by fertility clinics, people wouldn’t be trying to use it to justify new moral evils today.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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