Republican presidential contender Herman Cain’s explanation of his position on abortion while chatting with CNN’s Piers Morgan is causing his growing legion of fans and supporters discomfort, and with good reason. It was ethically incoherent at best, unethical at worst. In either case, his comments show that he hasn’t devoted sufficient serious analysis to the issue to allow him to have a responsible and consistent approach. That is status quo for most Americans. It is not acceptable for a President of the United States.
Here is the relevant section of the interview (emphasis mine):
PIERS MORGAN: Abortion. What’s your view of abortion?
CAIN: I believe that life begins at conception. And abortion under no circumstances. And here’s why —
MORGAN: No circumstances?
CAIN: No circumstances.
MORGAN: Because many of your fellow candidates — some of them qualify that.
CAIN: They qualify but —
MORGAN: Rape and incest.
CAIN: Rape and incest.
MORGAN: Are you honestly saying — again, it’s a tricky question, I know.
CAIN: Ask the tricky question.
MORGAN: But you’ve had children, grandchildren. If one of your female children, grandchildren was raped, you would honestly want her to bring up that baby as her own?
CAIN: You’re mixing two things here, Piers?
CAIN: You’re mixing —
MORGAN: That’s what it comes down to.
CAIN: No, it comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidents, you’re not talking about that big a number. So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make. Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn’t have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue.
MORGAN: By expressing the view that you expressed, you are effectively — you might be president. You can’t hide behind now the mask, if you don’t mind me saying, of being the pizza guy. You might be the president of United States of America. So your views on these things become exponentially massively more important. They become a directive to the nation.
CAIN: No they don’t. I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make.
MORGAN: That’s a very interesting departure —
MORGAN: — from the normal politics.
No, Piers…no, Herman, it’s not a departure at all. Cain’s position is a sadly common dodge among politicians who do not have the courage or integrity to take a clear position on a divisive and emotional issue, so they take both sides, and disingenuously trumpet their weasel words as being principled. This is the favorite bob-and weave of Catholic politicians like Joe Biden, John Kerry and Mario Cuomo, who perfected the deceit. Here is what I wrote about Kerry, when he told an Iowa newspaper in 2004,
”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.”
“…Kerry is saying unequivocally that he believes a fetus is a human life, and thus that he must necessarily believe that abortion is the taking of a human life, that is to say,murder… Let us examine the possible explanations for this inexplicable position:
“Possible Explanation One. Kerry will not stand up for what he believes is right, even when it involves (by his own analysis) the taking of innocent life. This is, or should be, a disqualifying feature in any elected official, for any office in a republic. A public servant’s values are his compass; if these do not guide his actions, then they will be guided by crass political and selfish considerations alone. It is a position of moral cowardice.
“Possible Explanation Two. Kerry believes that ethical and moral standards are purely subjective, and that all value systems are equally valid. This thoroughly discredited (but, sadly, not uncommon) view says, “I may think what you’re doing is murder (or theft, or rape, or extortion, or terrorism), but if you think it’s OK, that’s your right.” This ethical stance is a call to anarchy, and an assault on the principle of the rule of law. It is, in fact, as assertion that societal ethical values do not, can not, and should not exist.
“Possible Explanation Three. Kerry is genuinely confused. In his interview, he explained his conduct by claiming that it is inappropriate for an elected official to use his religion-based beliefs to guide his policies. But the Constitution-mandated separation of church and state has never been interpreted to mean that it is inappropriate for a politician to support any value or position consistent with religious teachings. How could it? Does Kerry think it is inappropriate for a politician to oppose theft, for example, because the position is in concert with the Ten Commandments? Could Kerry possibly maintain that beliefs learned from parents, education or experience are a valid foundation for legislative action, but beliefs formed in church are not?”
All of these apply with equal force to Cain, who is saying the same thing but using a limited government rationalization rather than the separation of church and state nonsense that Kerry trotted out. Today I heard conservative D.C. talk-show host Chris Plante describe Cain’s answer to Morgan as “near-perfect.” A caller then challenged Plante, who typically talks down dissenters with breathless rapid-fire rants that leave no room for interruption, by saying this (paraphrasing…I don’t have the transcript):
“Cain said he was pro-life, and then said that whether or not to have an abortion is a personal, social choice. That isn’t pro-life. That’s pro-choice. If he thinks that a fetus is a human life with full protection of the laws, how can he say that it’s just a personal decision whether or not to end it that life? Is he arguing that the government is exceeding its power to prohibit murder? If he’s truly pro-life, as he says he is, then that has to be what he’s saying, and that’s just plain wrong.”
“Good point,” was Plante’s atypically terse response.
“Near-perfect response” my foot.
There are many positions on abortion that have ethical integrity:
1. A fetus is a human life from conception, with full rights and privileges or every other life in the Unired States. This means that the fetus’s life, life other lives, cannot be taken without due process of law, by the mother or anyone else. How the fetus was conceived, including by rape or incest, is irrelevant: a human life cannot be made less by the conditions of its creation. Such a life cannot be taken even to save the life of the mother.
2. A fetus is a human life from conception, but a life accorded lesser rights than a born and living human being. The fetus does not acquire these rights until birth, and thus up to the point of birth, may be sacrificed in order to save the life of the mother, but for no other reason.
3. A fetus is a potential human life with minimal rights that allow the mother, and only the mother to terminate it for any reason. As the fetus develops to viability, it gains in rights in respect to the mother, until at some point only the life/health of the mother can justify a legal and ethical termination.
4. A fetus is a human life with full rights except in relationship to the mother, who can always demand an abortion in order to save her life.
5. A fetus is not a human being with the rights of a person until birth, and can be aborted at any time, for any reason.
6. Human life does not begin until self-awareness. Differences between unborn viable children and born infants are artificial and arbitrary, and the mother should have the right to terminate the life of either as long as they are not self-aware.
The current position of the Supreme Court is closest to #3. I would not bet my head that there are not other ethically consistent variations on these six, but whether there are or not, Cain’s position, as he described to Piers Morgan, isn’t one of them.
Herman Cain’s position is that a fetus is a human being with full rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with no exceptions, but if you feel like killing one of your own, that’s your option. It is a position, like Kerry’s*, that is devoid of ethical integrity, common sense or logic. Plain talking is a refreshing change in a presidential candidate, but plain double-talk is all too familiar. This issue demands better.
* I watched Morgan and a CNN anchor sneeringly mock Cain for this inconsistency, as if it was unique to him. I have never heard or read any mainstream media criticize the essentially identical positions of Kerry, Biden, Cuomo and others. Make of that what you will.