Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Conscience of a Liberal

Eileen McNamara, a dedicated libertarian when it comes to abortion rights, in her column today questions how The Presumptive Nominee could say that he believes “life begins at conception” and at the same time have a 100% perfect voting record on legalized abortion as judged by groups like NARAL.

Over to you, Eileen:

I did not know that Senator John F. Kerry believes that life begins at conception. Now that I do know, I do not understand 20 years of votes supporting a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
I tend to believe the 20 years of consistent votes more than one interview held during a tour “designed to highlight his his values and cast himself as an acceptable alternative for conservative voters” (that is what the Globe called it last Monday).
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's explanation over the weekend implied that his civic duty in a pluralistic society required him to ignore his conscience. ''There is something called freedom of conscience in the Catholic Church," Kerry told an Iowa newspaper. ''I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life begins at conception. But I don't take my Catholic beliefs, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant, on a Jew, or an atheist who doesn't share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."
So, Kerry's conscience is not at odds with church teaching, just with his voting record? By any measure, that is an odd definition of conscience. Forget church teaching for a moment. Conscience is a moral concept, as well as a religious one, after all.
I agree. Does it follow from this that “character counts”?
If you believe that life begins at conception, doesn't your conscience compel you to vote in concert with that belief? Just as, if your conscience tells you capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder, you would vote against the death penalty? Or if you believe that gay marriage is a fundamental civil right, you would vote against a constitutional amendment to ban it?
“I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos".”
– Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
I, and I suspect many others who support legal abortion, had mistakenly assumed that, on this very personal issue, Kerry's conscience was at odds with the teaching of his church. His consistent record in favor of abortion rights, family planning, and reproductive freedom was, I thought, a courageous reflection of an independent mind.
So much talk about his courage. Unnecessary hogwash. I say expediency explains the behavior just as well. And saying that voting 4 out of 4 times to support partial-birth abortion is “at odds with the teaching of his church” is some kind of understatement! Furthermore, such votes are also in opposition to the overwhelming public sentiment concerning this repulsive practice, even in Massachusetts. But it is such a voting record that keeps the militant abortion-rights fanatics happy with Senator Kerry and keeps their ire turned elsewhere. Expedience is at work here, not courage or independence.
Now, I don't know what to think. I cannot respectfully disagree with him as I do with an abortion opponent whose conscience prompts her to work to unseat lawmakers like Kerry. I understand her. She is acting on principle, lobbying to change laws antithetical to her conscience. I don't understand him, voting consistently in opposition to what he now tells us is one of his core beliefs.
Eileen, you are being very un-nuanced here!

I believe this is regarded as a skill by some and called “compartmentalization”. Only an un-nuanced simpleton would call it “a lack of integrity”. Many of you in the press admired the 42nd president for his ability to do exactly this. What is your problem here?

Is it perhaps the suspicion that Mr. Kerry’s record suggest that his ultimate core value always concerns his prospects in the next election, and as a result he will now articulate most any cliché which might appeal (pander!) to the Midwestern swing voter? Perhaps he is not really a liberal at all, but rather needed to behave as one in order to advance his political career in Massachusetts. And well so he did, starting with a bang upon his return from Vietnam in 1971.
This really isn't about religion. Catholics have abortions at about the same rate as other women in the United States, just as they use birth control, have premarital sex, and get divorced. Those choices certainly put them at odds with their church, but most, I think, would say their consciences are clear. As much as it objects to such ''cafeteria Catholics," the hierarchy knows that not every Catholic accepts all of its teachings, that if it required that level of conformity, the pews would be empty. What is Kerry saying about his conscience? That it conforms in church, but dissents during roll calls?
Kerry represents what is essentially a 1-party state. This condition allows elected officials to engage in all kinds of misbehavior when they know they may vote without fear of reprisal at the next election. The 2-party system is a vast improvement over this. We should try it some time. Illuminating these misbehaviors would be a good role for an impartial news media.
I wanted to ask Kerry more about this, but he was busy yesterday, trumpeting a vice presidential pick that the NARAL Pro-Choice America, the lobbying arm of the abortion rights movement, called ''a dream ticket for a woman's right to choose." Betsy Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro Choice America, was offended that I wanted to discuss Kerry's abortion comments on ''such a great day." Why, she asked, would I spin a ''minor comment" into a ''minicyclone" when abortion rights supporters should be keeping our ''eye on the prize, defeating Public Enemy Number One, George Bush." For all we know, she said, Kerry sees life as a continuum, with conception the acorn and childbirth the oak. Shouldn't she ask him, I wondered. ''Why?" she asked. ''Our job is to get Bush out."
Offended that you should question the Party? Indeed! It is not surprising that a dissent from conformity provokes hostility among such true believers in a Sole Progressive World View as NARAL.

NARAL's response reminds me of stories in “The Gulag Archipelago” about Soviet Party members who personally questioned how long the Gulag camps would be needed. They were shocked when dissenters received 10-year sentences in the 1920s; believing that in less than a decade they would finish creating the Worker’s State and thus would no longer have need of a huge complex of forced labor camps. Their Party's fanatic leaders were not pleased to have the wisdom of the Party questioned, especially concerning its view of the inevitable progress of history. Those who continued to question found out much more than they ever wanted about the Gulag.

So, Eileen, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, lest you incur more wrath and spoil the Party.
It is that kind of talk that makes me despair that the electoral process can ever be a useful means to debate divisive issues in America. Abortion remains so contentious, in part, because each side is so intent on holding its ground that neither acknowledges how difficult this issue is for many Americans.
In part true, but only in part. The largest reason this debate remains divisive is that the key decisions were not made by the elected representatives of the people (many of whom were wrestling with this issue in 1973). Rather, the most important decision was imposed by a court judgment and maintained by what can only be called fanatics. They view every question through the abortion prism. The abortion-rights activists who pursued the original 1973 decision have fought tooth-and-nail for 30 years against any federal legislation that restricts the practice of abortion in any way, and against the advancement of any judge who might threaten that 1973 ruling. No holds barred and no quarter given. Ask Clarence Thomas. Or see how much helpful support a rape victim received from NOW when she made charges against a prominent Democrat who supported abortion rights.

And John Kerry is the poster child of these fanatics. A catholic US Senator voting for unrestricted abortion – the very model of a “courageous” (your word) abortion-rights Catholic.

It is not surprising that Kerry leaves his conscience in the Senate cloakroom, Eileen. Such lack of integrity (there I go again!) is unseemly in a senator, but a tragedy for a nation when practiced by a president who possesses no core values that actually impact his behavior as a legislator or a leader. Again I refer to the superb example set by the 42nd president.
I, for one, would like to know more about how difficult an issue it is for John F. Kerry and his curious conscience.
So would I. You are welcome to ask as far as I am concerned, Eileen. But in the weeks to come if the mainstream press by some remote chance gives The Presumptive Nominee a pass on this question, would you excuse me for suspecting their impartiality?

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