Obama on Abortion

| | Comments (9)

I've tried hard to make sense of Barack Obama's various statements, stumbles, votes, and explanations related to abortion. With many of them, I haven't succeeded. I've come to the conclusion that he simply hasn't thought hard about the issue and that he's grossly unaware of many of the important background facts, both about the legal background and the general philosophical conversation about this important issue. I wanted to put my conclusions together in one post, with links to some of the places where I've spent more time on the details for some of these things.

1. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. Supreme Court precedent does prohibit certain kinds of laws from restricting abortion, but it never does so by defining the moral status of a fetus (it simply ignores that issue as if it's unimportant) or by declaring anything about which human beings count as persons. I've discussed this issue at length here, with some followup discussion here, and those who were defending him in the comments didn't seem to me to have anything that really helped.

2. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks he can require the kinds of exceptions to abortion that his voting record shows he insists on (and the Supreme Court has consistently required) while saying that mental health exceptions only mean diagnosed mental illnesses. This is not how pro-choice politicians opposing laws without mental health exceptions have based their opposition, and it's not how the Supreme Court has taken it. Any mental distress or psychological harm counts as a legitimate exception, according to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and pretty much all abortion decisions the Supreme Court has rendered where it's come up. (The only exception is the one instance since the 80s when the conservatives have won the day, the second time the Supreme Court heard a case on a partial-birth abortion ban. The removal of the mental health exception there applies only to one method of late-term abortion and not to all late-term abortions.)

What's interesting about this is that it pulls Obama (1) to the left of the Supreme Court on the first issue, to the point of refusing to support a law that requires doctors to comfort and care for born infants who happen to be premature enough that it's unlikely but possible that they'll live and (2) to the right of the Supreme Court on the second issue, to the point of refusing to accept the limit on abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has imposed, that any psychological trauma, even if not a diagnosed mental illness, can justify an abortion no matter what other circumstances occur (including bans against exactly that instance of abortion). So far there's no inconsistency.

But what Jan Crawford Greenburg points out is that Obama is on record opposing what he's been saying in #2. It's not just that he's on record saying it but has flipped to oppose it. He's currently supporting legislation that opposes his current position in #2, and he's promised that it will be a top priority upon assuming the office of president. The Freedom of Choice Act would basically remove all state and federal restrictions on abortion at any time and for any reason. Is Obama just talking out of both sides of his mouth? Or does he really not understand how badly he's mucked things up on this issue?

3. Obama is so ignorant of the philosophical literature on abortion that he thinks the only way anyone could be pro-life is if they simply hear a religious authority figure express a theological conviction and thus believe it on religious authority. At the Saddleback forum, he said he respects pro-lifers because their belief that life begins at conception is simply a core issue of faith. No, pro-lifers hold that life begins at conception because it's scientific fact. The deep irony of Democrats' accusations that Republicans are anti-science is that this common pro-choice line is as anti-science as you get (and see here for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually citing a religious authority in contradiction of science on this point). Life begins at conception. There's no doubt about that.

The important question isn't when life begins but when moral status begins, and that's in fact what Rick Warren asked Obama, but Obama dodged the question because he apparently doesn't think presidents have to know anything about the important moral philosophical issues that lie behind hard questions like this. The fact is that there's a long history of philosophical arguments not based on religious authority for a pro-life position, and most pro-lifers are aware enough of themtheir view is not simply the article of faith that he badly misrepresents it as, thus insulting pro-lifers while trying to appear nice to them.

4. Also at the Saddleback forum, he demonstrated that he somehow got the idea that abortions have gone up under the current president, when they've consistently gone down for a long time, including the entirety of President Bush's tenure. That's a pretty important factual issue to get exactly backwards.

It's no surprise that he's talking as if he thinks presidents shouldn't have to have any conclusions about this issue, since he doesn't seem to be able to think about it carefully, clearly, or in light of the facts. Yet for years he's consistently voted as if he does have a view. According to that view, it's perfectly ok to allow people to do something that, if the metaphysical question he refuses to answer is really unclear, it may be very bad to allow. Yet it's above his pay grade to do the background work required for any reasonable method of arriving at a view on it, and thus he refuses to answer any questions about the kind of thinking that he must simply never have done on this issue and is still insistent on never doing. Either that or he's refusing to say what he thinks because he knows it won't go over well.

His attempts to express views have left him so muddled that he's realized he can't pull it together and make a coherent story about what he's said, and he's not going to try but instead will defer the question to a higher authority. I see this often enough in undergrads who have never had to think hard about the issue but have just accepted a line they've been taught by others. It makes me wonder if he's really just in the same category. He's never taken the time to do any serious discussion of the issues with someone who has an opposite conclusion to his after having thought about them, and thus when he interacts with the issues publicly he just reveals himself to be ignorant of the legal issues and not to have thought much about the philosophical issues. Regardless of your views on abortion, I think it's fair to say that this is not what we should want in a president.

Some people called John Kerry inconsistent on abortion, and I defended him against those charges. I'm willing to be charitable to those I disagree with if they leave a way to take them seriously in all the things they say. I disagreed with one of Kerry's fundamental premises, but he had a consistent view, and I pointed that out to counter the many who refused to do that with him. This is different. Barack Obama has basically declared himself incompetent to make any judgments on one of the key issues of our day, and I have to say that I agree with him. The statements he's been making show that he's either hopelessly ignorant on some very important policy matters or deliberately contradicting himself in order to pretend to two opposing groups that he's on both their sides. That means he probably should have a job where these issues really are above his pay grade. There are a lot of such jobs. Unfortunately for him, the job of U.S. President (not to mention U.S. Senator, Illinois State Senator, or constitutional law professor) would not be in the list.

9 Comments

Unfortunately for him, the job of U.S. President (not to mention U.S. Senator, Illinois State Senator, or constitutional law professor) would not be in the list.

Would Supreme Court Justice be on that list?

There are issues in the post that I've never thought about, and back when we were discussing Meyer's qualifications for the Supreme Court, you indicated that you, me, and any number of people who we know who are smart and capable of learning quickly would be qualified to be a Supreme Court justice despite having no training or experience in law, politics, or (I'm assuming the next one here) philosophy.

So...are the qualifications of a Supreme Court justice actually *lower* than the qualifications of President, Senator, and Professor? Or is it OK to learn on the job? I know you used to hold the latter position, but maybe that only applies to the highest court in the land, and not to the other two branches of government or to professors.

Two separate issues. One is the qualifications for holding an office, and the other is what should be expected of someone in that office or expecting to achieve it. I thought people were going way overboard saying Harriet Miers wasn't qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. I would have been upset if she accepted the nomination and decided not to look at hard questions of constitutional law and come to some conclusions on some of the more important issues that Supreme Court justices need to have at their fingertips to do their job well. But that's not a matter of being unqualified. It's a matter of being able and willing to do the hard work require of someone who isn't as prepared for that kind of job, and I never denied that other picks would have been much better precisely because they were better prepared for having already done that hard work and having been doing it for years. I just said there's a minimum qualification, and I didn't think anyone had shown that she didn't have it.

Similarly, I have no problem with someone smart, with a pretty good background in thinking through hard issues, coming into an office that involves kinds of issues they've never considered. That's one reason I don't think lack of foreign policy experience should be a deciding factor for Obama's run for the presidency. I wouldn't say he's unqualified simply because he's weak on foreign policy, because he has no executive experience, or because he's never held a full-time job for more than three years. He's got more work to do than Joe Biden would have had if he'd been the presidential nominee, but that's been true of presidents before. Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush were all governors with little foreign policy experience. JFK and LBJ had no executive experience.

What worries me is that he doesn't seem interested in taking on the task of thinking about a question that lots of people have spent a lot of time thinking about and have come to conclusions about. He doesn't think he's capable of doing what anyone advocating a policy on the issue ought to have done before advocating that policy, and yet he has been voting on legislation on the very issue that he doesn't think he's done the foundational work for the basic moral question that issue requires.

Now a professor is another matter. You ought to be enough of an expert in the subject matter you're teaching that you can teach it competently and fairly. Constitutional law requires knowing what Supreme Court cases say, and Obama apparently doesn't know Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court cases on abortion very well. I'm not an expert on the subject myself, and I would only take on teaching the legal issues of abortion if I had time to do a significant amount of preparation. But I went and looked through several key cases and searched hard to find if there were others that he might have been referring to, and no other abortion cases seemed relevant besides the ones I looked at. His statements didn't seem to me to fit at all with the cases that I could find any information on, and it left me thinking he really hadn't understood what Supreme Court precedent was on the issue. That's disturbing if it's coming from someone who had taught constitutional law at a top law school and who had been president of Harvard Law Review.

Hoo boy, I'm going to have to start going point-by-point here, huh? Keep in mind that my argument here is not that Obama's position is consistent or correct, just that inconsistency on an issue like this is not a disqualification to be president.

(I mean, seriously, do you really think that all of the pro-life polititians have the subtle grasp of abortion issues that you require, even if they come to the same conclusion as you? They just have a position that's easier to recite without inconsistency and without exposing their lack of depth on the issue, right? Can your average pro-life candidate tell you what a sorites problem is and how it applies to the accretion of rights? According to you, they need to in order to be minimally qualified for office. But I suspect that you are satisfied with them agreeing with you even if they are ignorant of the salient issues.)

At any rate, here we go:

1) Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. I can't comment on this since I don't know where you're getting it. I followed the other two links in that point, but I didn't see where Obama made the point you're making. A link would be appreciated

2) I'm not exactly following the argument here, but I'll assume you are correct in that is shows Obama's position to be somewhat inconsistent. Again, my point is that such inconsistencies, while not a good thing, do not disqualify you from public office.

3a) Obama is so ignorant of the philosophical literature on abortion that he thinks the only way anyone could be pro-life is if they simply hear a religious authority figure express a theological conviction and thus believe it on religious authority. No, he actually said: One of the things that I've always said is that on this particular issue, if you believe that life begins at conception, then -- and you are consistent in that belief, then I can't argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you. I can't find anywhere where he says that that is the only rationale for the pro-life argument. He merely cites one rationale for pro-life that he has particular respect for.

3b) At the Saddleback forum, he said he respects pro-lifers because their belief that life begins at conception is simply a core issue of faith. No, pro-lifers hold that life begins at conception because it's scientific fact. He's speaking common language. Yes, in theo/philosophical debates, you need to be using the terminology correctly. But he's speaking to the general public and thus dispenses with technical language. The average viewer thinks about abortion under the rubric of "alive or not", and it is appropriate in that context to talk that way.

Consider the following example. Suppose a liberal is ranting against "American Imperialism". Now a conservative wants to critique that. However, America is not technically an Empire and thus it would be "incorrect" to respond by talking of "American Imperialism". He would need to respond in the language of "American Hegemony" or somesuch if he were to be technically correct. But that *wouldn't communicate* correctly, since the public is now thinking in terms of "Empire or not". Just so, the pro-life movement (for good or ill) has made "life" the central term of debate, even if "personhood" or "accretion of rights" is more accurate. To require that our polititians use that language is to reduce their ability to communicate and require that they sound like out-of-touch wonks to everyone except the experts in the relevant fields.

Heck, even my ethics professor discusses abortion largely in terms of life/value rather than personhood/rights until pedants like me force him to change his language--it's not that he's ignorant of the issue, but (presumably and charitably) that he doesn't want to spend half the class trying to get the majority of students onto the same page.

4a) [nitpick] he demonstrated that he somehow got the idea that abortions have gone up under the current president, when they've consistently gone down for a long time Actually, he only claims that they aren't going down: abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address He's still wrong, but not "exactly backwards" as you claim.

4b) On the "paygrade" issue: he is admitting that he does not know as much as theologians/philosophers/embryologists do about the issue. To answer with certainty, or "specificity" in his language, you would need to ask someone with more knowledge. But I'm not finding that he's deferring or claiming that he doesn't know the broad outlines or punting responsibility. What he's saying is that it's a hard issue and that we will always be left with doubts or have questions left unanswered. Nevertheless, it is not like he refuses to cast a vote citing ignorance. What he does (presumably) is make the best decision he can with the knowledge at hand with the awareness that he may be wrong.

Would you prefer some other way of working?

5a) His statements didn't seem to me to fit at all with the cases that I could find any information on, and it left me thinking he really hadn't understood what Supreme Court precedent was on the issue. I find this funny. You, an admitted non-expert, do a legal search and the results seem to support you over a Law school professor. Your conclusion is that the professor is clearly wrong, and not that the professor may have some expertise and knowledge that you don't know about. I do this too, but I think it is generally considered bad form.

5) What worries me is that he doesn't seem interested in taking on the task of thinking about a question that lots of people have spent a lot of time thinking about and have come to conclusions about. So now intellectual curiosity is now a requirement for the presidency? That you would say that I find somewhat...odd. Let us take the current president, whom you hold in high esteem and consider to be a very good president, as an example: even his friends indicate that President Bush lacks intellectual curiousity. Or, let us take a different tack: I challenge you to find anywhere President Bush demonstrating the mastery of abortion issues that you require of Obama (and every President, Senator, and State Senator). Show that he understands that the best of the pro-choice view involves a distinction between personhood and life, and that rights accrue over development. Show that he understands what a sorites problem is. Show that he understands Supreme Court precedent about the designation of "person" to a fetus. Show me where he says that abortion is not about "life" but about "moral status". Show me that he is "interested in taking on the task of thinking about a question that lots of people have spent a lot of time thinking about and have come to conclusions about."

This probing curiousity is a requirement for the presidency, according to you. Bush should have displayed it prior to his election in order to be elected. That he hasn't displayed it after two terms in office should doom him as a failure in your eyes.

But that's just applying your standards to Bush.

When it comes to Obama, I don't think that your charge that he isn't "interested in taking on the task of thinking about a question that lots of people have spent a lot of time thinking about and have come to conclusions about" holds water. His "paygrade" comment is not an admission of "I don't care", but an admission of "I don't know with certainty". Do you require certainty of important metaphical truths to be a requirement? Do those certainties have to match with yours? (If so, do you now require all presidents to be Protestant Christians?)

His inconsistency may be bad, but I don't see that as a fatal flaw--which politician has a fully consistent stance? I would certainly prefer that he be consistent, especially on this issue. But I can certainly see how this would be one of the last issues that you would come to certainty about. My personal position on the topic has drifted widely over the last 15 years as I've been exposed to more arguments and learned in more fields. I am a perpetual student (i.e. I have more time and motivation than most to think about these things) and still I can see that more drifting of my position is likely. And still my position has inconsistencies.

I can tolerate a certain amount of inconsistency, and I can tolerate even more from the realist/pragmatists who don't even have consistency as a goal. To some degree, both candidates are realist/pragmatists. That makes it a pain to critique them, since exposing minor inconsistencies don't really amount to anything, but I can live with it.

Everything you've cited about Obama is consistent with the idea that he is muddling through a difficult position. Part and parcel of that is some confusion and inconsitencies. What I don't see is any evidence that he simply doesn't care to tackle the issue, as you charge him, or that he feels that he is incapable of learning about it. All I see is an admission that he does not know as much as he could (and that in order to know that much, he may need to go into a different profession).

What about that picture disqualifies Obama from the presidency?

First of all, the issue is not whether someone grasps the issues or not. It's whether they think it's worth grasping them, whether they think they have any business trying to think through them. Saying it's above your pay grade is a cop-out, an anti-intellectual resistance to doing the hard philosophical thought that the issue requires. I don't expect everyone to have done that work, but I do think they ought to see it as work worth doing, worth striving to do better at than they've done, and I'd like them at least to have tried to settle on a view, especially if they've already been making policy on the issue for years and making strident speeches against those who decide policy the other way.

1. At this post, see comments by me on Feb 23 at 2:02 pm and 4:20 pm. That's where I discuss the cases. Unfortunately, the discussion continued at the now defunct blog Right Reason, and I can't access that without finding the individual page it was on through that archive site I used to recover my posts, and I don't have time to do that right now. I don't think the continuing discussion had a lot more, but I know it went a little further between me and Keith on the Supreme Court cases.

3a. He says he respects pro-life people because this is true of them. That sounds to me like an assumption that it's the only reason people are pro-life. It's his explanation why pro-life people are deserving of respect, and it's quite contrary to why most pro-life people I know are pro-life and a bit insulting.

3b. He was asked a question about when moral rights begin. He answered in terms of when life begins. It was his shift in language. He could have used Warren's own terms and actually answered the question. Instead he said something false and misplaced where the issue really lies for no good reason, because Warren had asked the question in a way that's already perfectly understandable to the ordinary person. I think there's reason to say that he could have done better on this.

I've been teaching abortion to undergrads for over a decade now. I've had a handful of students who haven't been able to discuss the issue more carefully and precisely once they've been exposed to a clearer presentation of the issues. I forced every student in my ethics class to write about abortion last semester, and not one of them had a problem in this area.

4b. This doesn't sound like the humble precursor to a discussion of the issue, as if he wants to say he's not an expert before answering the question. The reason it doesn't sound like that is basically because he doesn't go on to answer the question. I could imagine someone saying that and meaning what you take it to mean, but only if they went on to answer the question. Without that, it's a dodge. I'm more inclined to think that's what it is, but I'm doing my best to take him at his word that he really does think this is something he can't even say a thing about.

5a. I'm not a legal scholar, but I know the abortion literature very well, probably better than anyone else I've ever met. I've read through the Supreme Court opinions and spent quite a lot of time searching Google and Wikipedia for other cases I may not have heard of. I know how to search for the word 'person' in a PDF, and I found all the references to it in Roe v. Wade and several other opinions. There wasn't anything like what he was suggesting.

Also, Obama is not a constitutional scholar. He's a community organizer with a law degree who has a few years of experience as a legislator. He taught some courses as an adjunct in a law school, but teaching courses doesn't make you a legal scholar. Contributing to the research in the field of law makes you a legal scholar, and he's published one article anonymously. I don't consider that much of a legal scholar, at least not in the professional sense that the terms is usually used.

5(b?) It's not intellectual curiosity that I'm expecting. It's a willingness to hear the arguments and consider them. The current president is willing to do that. He delegates to his team all the hard work of collecting the information, figuring out the various views, and giving him the reasons for the views they settle on, but he does hear the arguments and make the decision. He doesn't just do whatever they say as if it's above his pay grade. He does from time to time differ with his advisers on key issues, hence Harriet Miers. I'm sure many of the people close to him weren't fans of the immigration reform bill that he supported. We know there were disagreements over Iraq, and he did hear Colin Powell's objections. He just didn't accept them. Some of the lower people might have been kept out of his presence on some things by the people closest to him, but according to reports he does want to hear what the people he's chosen for his team have to say before he decides what he thinks is best.

I want to reiterate that I'm trying to take him at his word here. He may just be lying and dodging the question. But if so, I think he's declaring something about himself that he shouldn't want people to think is true of him.

Some minor points that I think are ultimately beside the point but feel compelled to point out:

3a) He wraps the language in an "if-then". As in, "if you believe x...then I respect [blah blah blah]". That does not imply "if you don't believe x, I don't respect you". After all, he quite clearly doesn't believe x, but surely he respects his own opinion. IIRC, you yourself made a big deal recently about how an if-then in one of your statements protected you from this kind of criticism.

3b) His shift in language was bad and doing that kind of thing always sounds dodgy. Nevertheless, it is not evidence that Obama doesn't think presidents have to know anything about the important moral philosophical issues that lie behind hard questions like this. You've made a giant leap with no evidence.

5a) Also, Obama is not a constitutional scholar... Then why are you placing expectations upon him as if he were?

But now on to the real meat of the issue...

4b+5b) It's not intellectual curiosity that I'm expecting. It's a willingness to hear the arguments and consider them. You really think that Obama is unwilling to even hear the arguments? Surely not. So your objection is that he is unwilling to consider the arguments. A bold claim. Show me anywhere where he dismisses pro-life reasoning.

So far as I can tell, the whole claim that he is unwilling to grapple with this issue (at least from this post) hinges on Obama's "paygrade" comment, which you see as a way of claiming that he either does not know anything about the issue, does not want to know anything about the issue, or does not have anything to say about the issue. The reason it doesn't sound like [a humble precursor] is basically because he doesn't go on to answer the question. I could imagine someone saying that and meaning what you take it to mean, but only if they went on to answer the question. Without that, it's a dodge. In rebuttal, I argue that politically, he did answer the question, even if technically he didn't.

In the context that he was in (giant Evangelical church being interviewed by that church's pastor), there was obviously only one "correct answer" to the question--the one McCain gave. So when Obama answered that "I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade," he is definitively answering the question to his audience. That it does not technically answer the question is largely irrelevant (In Bible studies, do you criticise Jesus for not technically answering the questions he's asked? Because he does that all the time.) Furthermore, his "I am pro-choice" answer follows pretty closely upon the heels of his "paygrade" comment, so it's not like he's rambling on before he gets to his point.

What he does do, both before and after his "I am pro-choice" answer is to attempt to establish common ground between him and the audience. What else can he do? He's got the "wrong answer", so all he can do is attempt to do is try to build bridges between where he is and where his audience is.

This does not, in my mind, seem like any sort of evidence that Obama is unwilling to consider the arguments of the other side. You claim that "I'm doing my best to take him at his word that he really does think this is something he can't even say a thing about." But of course, that isn't what he thinks at all--you're putting words in his mouth. If you really want to take him at his word, then you need to remember the context--he is in an Evangelical church being interviewed by an Evangelical pastor when both church and pastor lean heavily Republican and the vast majority hold pro-life to be one of their core political values. In that context, "paygrade" is not a way of trying to remain silent on the issue, but is a moment of deference to the pastor interviewing him. And "I am pro-choice" is not a dodge, but a clear answer to the question being asked (even if not technically so). In this context, how could you possibly think of him as being evasive? Do you really expect him to go answer the finer points of why they disagree when the major point went unasked? (If a Muslim asks me what color I think the text is in the heavenly version of the Koran, I'm not going to launch in to a discussion on the metaphysical properties of light in heaven even though I could. Rather I'm going to talk about why I'm not a Muslim, even though that doesn't technically answer the question.)

Obama gave a clear answer to a crowd that clearly disagreed with him--by all accounts, when Obama gave his answer he was greeted with stony silence. That is not dodging. That is not evasion. That is not being unwilling to consider the arguments. That is not ignorance. That is not political cowardice. That is not a disqualification for the presidency.

3a. He wraps the language in an "if-then". As in, "if you believe x...then I respect [blah blah blah]". That does not imply "if you don't believe x, I don't respect you".

I didn't say it does. What I said is that he's treating all people who do believe it as if they [blah blah blah] is true of them, which does follow from what he said.

3b. He said it's above his pay grade. His pay grade is currently that of a U.S. Senator, but he intends to increase it to that of U.S. President. That leap is therefore justified.

5a. I'm not expecting him to be a constitutional scholar, but I do think if he's going to teach constitutional law courses and if he's going to invoke cases in defense of his legislative record then he should know a little more than he seems to about the cases that he's talking about. I read the cases that were most relevant, and I didn't see anything like what he was talking about.

4b+5b)So your objection is that he is unwilling to consider the arguments. A bold claim. Show me anywhere where he dismisses pro-life reasoning.

He didn't seem to want to say anything at all about them when he was asked about the issue. That's either a dodge because he doesn't want people to know his real views, or he's unwilling to try to think through them enough even to say anything. He had an open-ended question about when moral rights begin where he could have taken plenty of time to explain that he thinks there are good arguments for both sides or that he thinks the arguments for one side are superior. Instead, he changed the subject and said the question Warren asked (which he misdescribed) is above his pay grade even though it's exactly the sort of question necessary for coming to the sort of view a legislator and a president need to have some view on.

Jesus ignores questions that he thinks are attempts to misrepresent the issues or divert the discussion to things that aren't important. Do you think that's Obama's view? If so, I'd have some even harsher criticisms than anything I've said so far.

I don't think he answered the question politically. He said what the practical import of his views are. Warren already knew that answer, and so did most of the congregation. What Warren was asking was whether he held John Kerry and Rudy Giuliani's view that moral rights begin earlier, and thus abortion is wrong, but it should still be legal for other reasons, or whether he holds the more radical view that moral rights don't begin that early at all. That's a legitimate question and a pretty fundamental one. It gets to what his actual reasons for being pro-choice are, because that reveals something about how he thinks about such things, the very thing Warren wanted this forum to accomplish. It was supposed to show the character of these two candidates and how they think through moral issues, something Obama regularly emphasizes when he says judgment is more important than experience. It's precisely because Obama's judgment isn't convincing many evangelicals because of things like this that they worry about his lack of experience.

I don't think you're right that Warren and Saddleback lean heavily Republican, either. Warren is pro-life, and most of the people there probably are, but he's also very critical of Republicans on economic issues. He's much more of a Wallis/Campolo type on a number of issues, actually. He just thinks pro-life issues are more important than those two do, and thus he won't join either party or endorse either candidate. He's trying to get both parties to move toward his own thinking and trying to get evangelicals to see themselves as independent from party-line thinking. He was clearly very unsatisfied with Obama's answers on this question judging by the aftermath, but his overall comments didn't seem to me to favor either candidate over the other, even in light of most commentators thinking McCain did a stellar job while Obama miserably failed. Warren seems to me to be a genuine moderate who sees things he likes in both candidates but also isn't happy about a number of things with both.

I don't think the Muslim analogy is remotely apt. The question there assumes something you don't believe. It's a stop-beating-your-wife question. Warren's question isn't. It's perfectly legitimate to ask whether moral rights begin at conception, develop gradually over the course of pregnancy, happen suddenly at some point during pregnancy, occur suddenly at birth, happen gradually after birth, and so on. I'd expect anyone willing to vote on legislation at the state or federal level or running for president either to have an answer to that question or be able to say why they think the question is irrelevant.

You keep referring to the "paygrade" remark as a dodge. I have a hard time seeing how a question about abortion being answered with "I am pro-choice" being in any way a dodge. You have several times implied that the reason he would want to dodge is that he wants to hide what he really thinks for political reasons. Does that answer sound like he's doing that? Does that sound like cowerdice? He is after all speaking to a crowd that likes the "At the moment of conception" answer so much that the transcript feels compelled to note the applause. I really cannot see where you're getting this "he doesn't want people to know his real views" idea is coming from. Now if one of the pro-choice views on moral rights was abhorrant and the other acceptable to pro-lifers, then I can see how you can say he's trying to hide his views. But to the vast majority of pro-lifers, all of the pro-choice views on moral rights are equally abhorrant (or nearly so). You, of course, are an exception, but I would not imagine the percentage to be over 2% based on my personal experience.

As for your charge that if it is not hiding his views, then he must have no views--did you overlook everything I said about context? He is speaking to a heavily pro-life crowd. From the moment he says that he is pro-choice, he has lost that crowd. He knows it. Everyone knows it. Every news report I read about it commented on it. This is an interactive debate, not just between Warren and Obama, but the crowd too (even if the crowd isn't allowed to ask any questions). Obama, having lost the crowd, does what every speaker who is not an idiot does, he tries to win back the crowd, in this case by trying to establish common ground.

Now on a transcript, his answer looks terrible because, as you note, he doesn't technically answer the question. And in reality, his answer was not much better since it did little to win the crowd back. But in that context, can you really say that the only alternatives are that 1) Obama wants to hide his views, and 2) Obama has no views? Is there not a third possibility of 3) Obama scambling to regain his audience? I mean, do you think he didn't lose his audience there? Or that he doesn't care about that?

If (3) is plausible, then you have shown no grounds to say that Obama is unwilling to consider contrary ideas.

(You note that the crowd already knew that he was pro-choice. That may be, but I wouldn't take that as an assumption. IIRC, Prior to Saddleback polls showed that a significant percentage of people thought that McCain was pro-choice. If true, I would imagine that the Obama/pro-life percentage would be significant too. I could easlily be wrong on that. At any rate, it is beside the point.)

As for Warren, I did not (or at least did not mean to) say that Warren gave bad questions or illegitimate ones. I meant only to say that he could be expected to ask questions that would be important to his congregation, whose church was the forum of the event. As for Warren's economic leanings, he has only come to where he is rather recently. Prior he was rather conservative economically. I cannot say for sure with Saddleback, but in general, it takes a while for the church to catch up with its pastor.

(also, if you are under the impression that I think Obama did a good job at this forum, please disabuse yourself of that notion. I am not trying to defend his performance there. I'm trying to argue that his performance there did not disqualify him from the presidency, as you seem to think.)

3b) Finally, I was going to leave this alone, but I cannot bring myself not to do it, so:

I said: His shift in language was bad and doing that kind of thing always sounds dodgy. Nevertheless, it is not evidence that Obama doesn't think presidents have to know anything about the important moral philosophical issues that lie behind hard questions like this. You've made a giant leap with no evidence.

You responded: He said it's above his pay grade. His pay grade is currently that of a U.S. Senator, but he intends to increase it to that of U.S. President. That leap is therefore justified.

How is Obama trying to get a higher paying job justification for you to leap to conclusions without evidence?

The question wasn't whether he's pro-life or pro-choice. It's well-established that he's pro-choice. The question was when he thinks moral rights begin. He dodged that question and answered one that wasn't nearly as deeply-probing.

It's not that hard to imagine political reasons for dodging it. If his view is the same as Kerry's, he might be labeled inconsistent. I think it's more likely that he just thinks a fetus has no rights until viability, given the weird justification he gave for his votes against the various versions of the born-alive act. But that view is very radical, and he may know it, deciding that even mainstream pro-choicers wouldn't be impressed by it.

You also keep talking as if this is a conservative evangelical congregation. It's Saddleback. They're not quite emergent, but many are in that direction, and a lot of them are not exactly GOP faithful. I'm sure a noticeable percentage of them are registered Democrats who are open to pro-choice views as a legal matter. We're not talking Bible Belt types. We're talking the kind of person who wants to distance themselves from anything churchy.

Your option 3 (scrambling to win the crowd back) seems to me to be a sub-species of option 1 (dodging the question).

The reason the crowd probably thought McCain pro-choice is because he's typically described as a moderate who regularly goes with the Democrats, and two-issue abortion/marriage people like James Dobson were saying (although Dobson has gone back on this, as I had expected) that they could never vote for someone like him. Dobson's view wouldn't even make sense if McCain had been pro-choice, but it certainly made no sense given that he's pro-life. I can easily imagine people inferring that McCain is pro-choice. I see nothing similar with Obama to make people think he's pro-life other than his profession of Christianity, but it takes knowing almost nothing about his particular kind of Christianity to infer that. (His 20-year denomination financially supports Planned Parenthood.) So I doubt it would be as high a percentage, since his church background has made the news quite a lot.

How is Obama trying to get a higher paying job justification for you to leap to conclusions without evidence?

Huh? I said that his current job and the future job he wants require him to have certain sorts of views or at least to be willing to tell people where he stands on them or why he's still undecided on them. I don't know listing both his current job and the future one he wants counts as basing my claim on the move from one to the other. Either would be sufficient on its own. That's a really weird way to read my statement.

Obama has followed up on this. He seems to recognize that his answer was probably too flip. I'm curious how he actually said it, because the article puts "probably" in quotes but not "too flip". He gives the following as the answer he would have given:

What I intended to say is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of humility about understanding when does the soul enter into … It's a pretty tough question. And so, all I meant to communicate was that I don't presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions...

What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue, that it's one that families struggle with all the time. And that in wrestling with those issues, I don't think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions.

I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure the young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that's unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.

So he thinks ensoulment has something to do with moral rights, apparently. That at least is an answer. That also explains why he thinks it's a theological question, because he probably doesn't think you can answer that with science, although some people think there are plausible places when ensoulment might occur (conception and cell differentiation, which is still very early but maybe a few weeks along, are the two most common options among those who actually consider the facts of development).

I don't think his answer is philosophically satisfactory as it stands, although it does limit his options more than anything he'd said at the Saddleback forum. He hasn't ruled out the view that moral rights begin at conception. If moral rights are definitive on abortion, as most pro-lifers think, then most cases of abortion may or may not be immoral, as far as he's explained. So how can he take a pro-choice position if he thinks that?

But then the charitable thing is to assume that he doesn't think moral rights are definitive. If that's right, shouldn't he say so? It still sounds like a dodge. If he thinks the rights of a woman actually outweigh the moral rights of the fetus in most cases (as would be required by a pro-choice view that accepts moral rights of the fetus), then he's going to need a serious argument for why that is. That's a pretty controversial position. All he says is that he doesn't like the outcome of the government criminalizing the choices of families compared to what he expects the outcome of not doing so.

That sounds like a very blunt consequentialism that also misinterprets the views of most pro-lifers, many of whom want to criminalize the act of performing an abortion so that doctors who perform them would face a criminal penalty but the women seeking them would not. His argument doesn't address that approach. He probably doesn't have the space to include everything, which is why I'm not complaining that he didn't explain why it's ok to criminalize the choices of families like Tony Soprano's when it's not ok to criminalize the choices of families. But it still doesn't sound like a philosophically sophisticated view, which is what everything I've read about Obama would lead me to expect. It still seems like his view on this issue isn't all that informed by the work philosophers and legal scholars have done on it.

Leave a comment

Contact

    The Parablemen are: , , and .

Archives

Archives

Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff

    jolly_good_blogger

    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible


    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)





  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04