When Does Life Begin?

The right’s anger at Obama’s refusal to accept the premise of Rick Warren’s question about when life begins raises all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes — starting with the weirdness of the same people who slammed Obama as “presumptuous” for acting too “presidential,” slamming him for “equivocating” and “copping out” because he declines to opine on a subject that is outside of his professional expertise.

Then there is the oddness of social conservatives objecting to a candidate deferring to God — and not even recognizing that Obama was referring to God with his “above my pay grade” remark (my bolds).

I can understand that people who favor “abortion rights” would not like John McCain’s answer. I find it difficult to believe that any candid person could regard Obama’s response as anything but an insulting and mendacious equivocation. It is insulting because it ostentatiously evades the question while giving a little wink to his home team: “Oh, these religious morons and their obsession with abortion! Of course, I could care less about it, but I also know it’s impolitic to say so, so I’ll emit a brief rhetoric fog and hope no one will notice.” And it’s mendacious because when it comes to “pay grades,” no one’s is higher than the President’s. If a man who aspires to the highest office in the land cannot respond to a pointed question about an important moral issue without taking refuge in empty sophistries, how will he deal with the myriad difficult issues with which the President is confronted daily? It seems to me that in claiming that it is “above his pay grade” to answer this question forthrightly, Obama essentially admits that he is unfit for the office he covets.

This guy actually thinks Obama was saying, ‘It’s not my job, I won’t do it.’

Here’s Ann Althouse, having a lightbulb moment (emphasis hers):

“Above my pay grade” does seem like an awful expression in this context. It made a bad impression on me when I heard it last night. (I said it sounded “cold.”) But thinking about it this morning, I’m pretty sure he meant to refer to God.

Pretty sure? Is she kidding? This woman is a lawyer! I knew as soon as I read his words that “above my pay grade” was a reference to God. And Ann Althouse is still not completely sure 12 hours later?

Mark Hemingway declares it’s the president’s job to decide when life begins, even if he is not in a position, being human and not the divinity, to know:

But my point was that just because only God can say with certainty where sentient life begins, it doesn’t mean the president gets to opt out of staking a moral position on the matter that will determine policy. Think of it this way: in a perfect world, only God would decide who lives or dies. And yet, the President still has to frequently decide to send soldiers out to certain death in service of national security and the greater good. Are such decisions above the Commander-In-Chief’s “pay grade”?

Andrew Sullivan answers that question:

Well, no, because he is directly responsible for the lives of the men and women he commands. But an embryo inside another person’s womb requires a more indirect answer, no? And the existential question of when an embryo gets “human rights” cannot be answered without knowing when an embryo or zygote becomes a human person. And on that question, even the Vatican is silent. There is a life issue here and a liberty issue here, and I think it’s perfectly possible for a presidential candidate to leave unanswerable existential questions to the Almighty and focus on practical policy questions which he can address. And Obama did.

He is not running for theologian-in-chief, however much the Christianists want to make this election about faith, and who most reflects their version of it.

Superbly said.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

5 Responses to “When Does Life Begin?”

  1. tas says:

    Let me preface this comment with my thought that the Saddleback Forum just feeds my belief that this election went completely fucking retarded a long time ago. So I’m going to try and be calm…

    I don’t know if Ann Althouse and the rest of her ideological compatriots are thick skulled, simply braindead stupid, or both, but their argument of Obama’s answer on the abortion question at this forum means that he stands on both sides of the issue confounds me. Furthermore, it overlooks the sensitivity of his answer, and his addressing of the actual issue afterwards.

    On the sensitivity front, Obama said “…ultimately I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with these pastors or their spouses or their doctors and their family members.” Have we ever heard any asshole Republican politician say this? No, of course not, because it’s their side that wants to equate abortion defenders with child molesters, communists, terrorists, et al. All the right has here are vile demonizations to spew forth against anyone who doesn’t tow their line. Have any of these jerks ever talked with a women considering an abortion? Or who had an abortion? Have they ever had a serious discussion with them? If they had, they would realize the issue is not as black and white as they like to make it out as. And the people we don’t need having any control over the abortion issue right now are stuffy old conservative men who can’t even fathom what it’s like to be a single parent in an America where these same stuffy old conservative men will call them “welfare mothers” for daring to survive. These men never have to face such a decision because they’re men. Then Obama dares to address the sensitivity surrounding the abortion issue and these people can’t shut up about how he’s trying to play both sides? Fuck them.

    Secondly, onto the actual issue, Obama said: “So for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground; and by the way, I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform — is, how do we reduce the number of abortions?”

    Yes, how do we? Especially since abortions only increase during Republican administrations. Regardless, I understand Obama’s statement because I’m pro-choice — but I also understand how difficult this choice is. It’s not a choice that any woman wishes to have. So how do we lessen the chances of such a choice manifesting itself?

    There are sure fire answers to this: more sex education, ready availability of birth control and condoms, etc… Of course, the stuffy old conservative men don’t want these options discussed because it’s against their religion, and they want to force everyone to live like them.

    And that’s just the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Obama is wrong about both sides finding “commn ground” on the abortion issue because the Republicans don’t want to do such. They never have. Instead of reducing the number of abortions, increasing sex education and helping women, these moral crusaders want to make abortion illegal — the consequences of which are forcing women who need a choice into unsafe abortions. More infections, more deaths. But they don’t give a flying fuck about this because, quite frankly, these men of supposed morals don’t have hearts.

    This issue sickens me — and their response to Obama’s supposed hypocrisy more so. If anything was offensive here, it was McCain’s answer that life begins at conception — in other words, his statement that he’s willing to place women’s lives at risk just to score political points. What a fucking asshole.

  2. Dynamic says:

    Tas, I think you might be reading an awful lot into McCain’s “life begins at conception” statement.

    Now hold up a second – I’m not saying you’re unjustified in thinking that. In fact, I suspect it’s quite likely that McCain is looking to have a lot of meaning read into that statement. And it’s that sort of code-word politics that undermines attempts by either side to reach common ground; by taking away the language of discourse and replacing it with the language of partisanship. We can’t let that happen.

    I think there’s a strong scientific case to be made for the argument that life begins at conception. I also think it’s heartless and terribly unChristian to deny people access to REAL sex education, contraceptives, and so on. I think there are solutions to be reached that the nation as a whole can agree on and that both sides of the spectrum can compromise towards. Nobody is in favour of abortion – and everybody agrees that safety is a priority, for both mother and child. That’s a strong common ground, if we allow it to be.

    I think Obama understands this, and I think he’s also a genuine Christian – the kind that practices compassion and peacefulness, not the Pat Robertson sort – and I look forward to seeing his approach to the abortion issue and hearing more about it. It’s something that I approach with an open mind because I want the issue solved for the good of the whole nation. Perhaps I’m not the average pro-lifer, but I think I make a case that the average pro-lifer could relate to.

  3. Steve W. says:

    The Question wasn’t “When does life begin?” The question asked was “when does a baby get human rights?” which is de facto political question.

    As regards the question “when does life begin,” there is virtually no disagreement in the scientific community that the answer is conception. That is when a new organism is formed, and organism that does not eve become a different organism. This is a matter of scientific fact.

    The question then, in the abortion debate, is not “when does life begin” but when does human life become worthy of defense and demand our protection in law. Some say birth, some say conception, some, like Peter Singer at Princeton, say sometime after birth. Reasonable people disagree as to whether a fetus is a “person” or the moral equivalent of an adult. That is an imprtant debate. But the question of the origin of life is clear…not religiously, but scientifically. The value of life remains a question of one’s moral vision of the universe.

  4. Laxman says:

    With the defining attributes of life, it would be fully revealed when the fetus develops coherent adult-like responses to the external stimuli with “brain Waves”. As coherent brain waves appear in seventh month, the notion is very appealing to me as a Physicist.

    In Garbhkopanishada (One of the commentaries on Vedas), it is mentioned that the soul with its previous accumulations enters the fetus in the seventh month and takes full control of the body – its carrier for life.

    The two thoughts one most modern and one most ancient miraculusly coinside at least in this particular instance. That furthers my confidence with a logically parallel concept one proved scientifically and one Inspired through meditation.


  5. Judson Pewther says:

    Let’s assume the question is a simple question of fact: “When does life begin?” Does life begin at conception? I would say no, life merely continues at conception. For what we have is a living sperm cell which joins and becomes one with a living egg cell or ovum to become a living zygote cell. If either the sperm or the ovum were not alive (dead), there would be no conception. I’d say the situation is much like what we see when a one-celled organism divides and becomes two one-celled organisms: there’s no beginning of life, but a mere continuation. But now it’s in reverse: two cells join and become one.

    No doubt someone will argue: but neither the sperm cell nor the ovum are complete organisms in the same way as one-celled organisms. However, I’d argue: yes, but the sperm and ovum are alive as much as any living cell in a human body.

    The idea that we commonly accept that a sperm cell is alive is reflected in the word “spermicide,” which means an agent that kills sperm cells, such as is used in a contraceptive. If sperm cells can be killed, then obviously they are alive. And if sperm cells are alive, surely an ovum is also alive (unless it died).

    So rather than having a beginning of life, what we have is a continuity of life that goes back and back and back, generation after generation. If you believe in the story currently told by science, this continuity of life extends back something like 3.5 billion years to some unknown primeval organism that sprang non-life. If you believe in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic story, you can trace the continuity of all human life back to Adam.

    Now one could have asked a different question: “When does a human life begin?” Phrased that way, I would say the emphasis is clearly on the life of a human individual. And the answer to that question is “At conception. Or possibly a bit later, if at some point the embryo splits into two, and becomes identical twins.”

    Even so, notice that the question “When does a life begin?” is very similar to the question, “Where does a leaf begin?” A leaf begins where its stem is connected to a twig. But the life of the leaf does not exist apart from the tree. Humans are also connected and growing on a great tree of life. But to see the connectedness and the tree, you have to include the time dimension.

    So what does all this have to do with the abortion question? Perhaps not much. But it does show that “Life begins at conception” is overly simplistic and wrong thinking. Who knows? If it is wrong to kill a zygote, maybe it is equally wrong to kill a sperm cell or ovum? Maybe someone who masturbates and flushes his semen down the toilet is committing genocide?


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