The Foundations of Our Freedom, The Anchor, July 3, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
July 3, 2009

Most Americans can cite or at least paraphrase by memory the celebrated phrase of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It goes on to say that governments are instituted precisely in order to protect these rights and that they lose their legitimacy when they become destructive of them.

A little over a month ago in the nation’s capital, Princeton Professor Robert George explored what the consequences of this self-evident equality need to be with respect to human life and to the legitimacy of public policy positions. He did so within the context of a debate with Pepperdine Professor Douglas Kmiec — President Obama’s most prominent Catholic pro-life supporter — on the president’s actions and statements with regard to abortion. We do not have the space in this editorial, no matter how small we shrink the font, to include all the points of the debate, which can be found in both text and video format in multiple locations on the web. What we’d like to do, however, is to focus on what Professor George said in his opening remarks with respect to how much President Obama’s thoughts on human rights and dignity diverge not only from the Catholic understanding but from what our founding fathers affirmed in the Declaration. George’s words are a poignant reminder for us, as we prepare to celebrate the 233rd anniversary of the signing of that Declaration tomorrow, of the necessary foundations for our freedoms. They also provide much to consider for all Catholics and all pro-lifers who in general share the President’s ideas.

“As someone dedicated to the principle that every member of the human family possesses profound, inherent, and equal dignity,” George begins, “[I] find myself at odds—deeply at odds—with President Obama and his administration. Professor Kmiec and I share common ground in the belief that every member of the human family—irrespective of race, class, and ethnicity, but also irrespective of age, size, location, stage of development or condition of dependency—is entitled to our care and respect and to the equal protection of our laws. This is what it means to be pro-life.

“I appreciated the President’s candor at Notre Dame when he said:  “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it . . . the fact is that at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.’  The President is right. His view regarding the status, dignity, and rights of the child in the womb, and the view shared by Professor Kmiec and myself, are irreconcilable. A chasm separates those of us who believe that every living human being possesses profound, inherent, and equal dignity, and those who, for whatever reasons, deny it. The issue really cannot be fudged, as people sometimes try to do by imagining that there is a dispute about whether it is really a human being who is dismembered in a dilation and curettage abortion, or whose skin is burned off in a saline abortion, or the base of whose skull is pierced and whose brains are sucked out in a dilation and extraction (or ‘partial birth’) abortion. That issue has long been settled—and it was settled not by religion or philosophy, but by the sciences of human embryology and developmental biology.…

“What divides us as a nation, and what divides Barack Obama, on one side, from Robert George and Douglas Kmiec, on the other, is not whether the being whose life is taken in abortion and in embryo-destructive research is a living individual of the human species—a human being; it is whether all human beings, or only some, possess fundamental dignity and a right to life. Professor Kmiec and I affirm, and the President denies, that every human being, even the youngest, the smallest, the weakest and most vulnerable at the very dawn of their lives, has a life which should be respected and protected by law. The President holds, and we deny, that those in the embryonic and fetal stages of human development may rightly and freely be killed because they are unwanted or potentially burdensome to others, or because materials obtained by dissecting them may be useful in biomedical research.

“The President speaks of human rights, and I do not question his sincerity. But he does not understand the concept of human rights, as Professor Kmiec and I do, to refer to rights—above all the right to life—that all human beings possess simply by virtue of our humanity. For the President, being human is not enough to qualify someone as the bearer of a right to life. Professor Kmiec and I, by contrast, believe that every member of the human family, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is truly created equal. We reject the idea that is at the foundation of President Obama’s position on abortion and human embryo-destructive research, namely, that those of us who are equal in worth and dignity are equal by virtue of some attribute other than our common humanity—some attribute that unborn children have not yet acquired, justifying others in treating them, despite their humanity, as non-persons, as objects or property, even as disposable material for use in biomedical research.

“President Obama knows that an unborn baby is human. He knows that the blood shed by the abortionist’s knife is human blood, that the bones broken are human bones. What he … continues to deny, is the fundamental equality of that child—equality with those of us who are safely born and accepted into the human community.  … Professor Kmiec and I believe in the equal fundamental rights of all, including the equality of mother and child. We recognize that women with undesired pregnancies can undergo serious hardships, and we believe that a just and caring society will concern itself with the well-being of mothers as well as their children. … President Obama holds a different view. He has made clear his own conviction that the equality of women depends on denying the equality and rights of the children they carry. He has made what is, from the pro-life point of view, the tragic error of supposing that the equality of one class of human beings can and must be purchased by denial of the equality of another.… The President does not believe in the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family; … he does not believe that babies acquire human rights until after birth; … [and] he does not see abortion as tragic because it takes the life of an innocent human being.”

Over the course of our nation’s history, we realized that human dignity and rights, if they’re unalienable, cannot be dependent on a human being’s sex or skin color. We still need to learn that neither can they be dependent on a human being’s age, size, genetic traits, the circumstances of their conception or who wants them.

As we prepare to celebrate tomorrow the Declaration of Independence and the freedoms and nation to which it helped give birth, let us commit ourselves anew to upholding, protecting and advancing the fundamental rights it describes, and to defending those who by their human nature and dignity are natural bearers of those unalienable rights.