Prof. Doug W. Kmiec of Pepperdine University and Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton University debated at the National Press Club on Thursday about the role of Catholics in politics and whether pro-life concerns should encourage support for or opposition to President Barack Obama.
Kmiec, a law professor and prominent Catholic supporter of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, argued that President Obama would implement policies to reduce abortions, and that he offered sound political positions on other important issues.
George, a law professor and a Republican member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, contended that President Obama really did not believe abortion to be a moral evil and did not believe in the human equality of the unborn.
Kmiec began his remarks by praising what he saw as President Obama’s ability to seek “common ground” and his exploration of whether common ground on disputed abortion policy can in fact exist.
Stressing that he considered “unacceptable” moral evasions about the immorality of abortion or the injustice of permissive abortion laws, he cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” about support for political proposals to lessen the negative consequences of abortion.
Intent is a “key element” in supporting such proposals, he said.
“Are we as Catholics expected to sit on the sidelines, aloof with our truth, talking among ourselves, reinforcing our goodness, or are we to engage our fellow citizens and indeed offer that gift of the truth of the human person… in matters of election and of public policy?” Kmiec asked rhetorically.
“Catholics must translate their faith tradition into understandable terms and offer it to their fellow citizens,” he advised.
Noting what he saw as President Obama’s praiseworthy positions, Kmiec said the president sought to end a war that leading prelates of Catholic Church had “pleaded” with President Bush not to enter. Kmiec said Obama seeks to be “a steward of the environment,” seeks to reform the health care system, and will “welcome the stranger” on immigration issues.
“And yet there is the issue of abortion. How to handle that question?” Kmiec continued.
Kmiec argued a Catholic may vote for an abortion supporter for “proportionate reasons,” so long there is “no active intent to advance the intrinsic evil of abortion.”
He said that National Institutes of Health draft regulations on embryonic stem cell research demonstrate that Obama is “listening” even “without agreeing with us.” Specifically, Kmiec praised the Obama administration’s funding of adult stem cell research and its decision not to use altered nuclear transfer/human cloning techniques to produce embryonic stem cells.
Kmiec also denounced as “intimidation” the proposed or actual denial of Holy Communion to abortion rights supporters such as Vice President Joseph Biden or former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. He argued this was “not an effective or Catholic approach.”
“The Church is not a political party and it can never find itself captured by a political party,” Kmiec concluded his opening remarks. “It is wrong to make the perfect the enemy of good, justice the enemy of love and, quite frankly, wrong not to recognize the good heart and genuine respect for life in someone coming from a point of view that is not necessarily the one that we ourselves have indulged in the past.”
Prof. George began by saying that he does not question the president’s sincerity when he speaks about human rights.
However, he claimed President Obama “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.”
He characterized this as an idea foundational to the president’s position on abortion.
George referred to Obama’s opposition to the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, saying that the president denied the “fundamental equality” of the child left unprotected because of his opposition to the law as an Illinois legislator.
“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.”
George suggested that some of Obama’s supporters do not serve him well by “pretending” that his expressed willingness to find “common ground” with pro-lifers involves the recognition that abortion or embryo-destructive research is “bad or tragic because it kills a living member of the human family.”
Obama does not profess to be “personally opposed” to abortion or to believe that abortion is a wrongful act that must nevertheless be legally permitted because the consequences of outlawing it would be worse, George claimed.
“His belief, and his policy, is that abortion, if a woman chooses it, is not wrong. That is why he is not personally opposed to it. There is no wrong there to oppose,” he charged, citing the president’s past presentation of abortion as the “right solution to a problem” in which otherwise a woman might be, in Obama’s words, “punished with a baby.”
George then suggested that Obama views abortion as no more bad or wrong than a knee replacement operation:
“No one regards knee operations as desirable for their own sakes…. But a knee operation is not something that one would discourage or be personally opposed to.”
George attacked the “common ground” claim that Obama wants to reduce the number of abortions. He reported that pro-life activist Wendy Wright, meeting with the Director of the President’s Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes, was told that the precise goal of the administration is to “reduce the need for abortions,” not reduce the number of abortions.
This was echoed by Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, George claimed, when the president didn’t propose reducing the number of abortions; rather, the president said he would work to reduce “the number of women seeking abortions.”
“The President and his administration will not join us on the common ground of discouraging women from having abortions or even in encouraging them to choose childbirth over abortion. The proposed common ground is the reduction of unwanted pregnancies—not discouraging those in ‘need’ of abortion from having them.”
“The President and the people he has placed in charge of this issue, such as Melody Barnes, have a deep ideological commitment to the idea that there is nothing actually wrong with abortion, because the child in the womb simply has no rights.”
Because of his view of abortion the president “is utterly and intransigently unwilling to support even efforts short of prohibiting abortion that would plainly reduce the number of abortions.”
“On issue of embryonic stem cell research, Obama revoked President Bush’s executive order promoting research to advance non-embryo-destructive sources of pluripotent stem cells,” he added.
“The common ground I am interested in is with pro-life Americans who, like Professor Kmiec, have supported the President politically,” George’s remarks oncluded.
“On which issues will we support the President’s direction, and on which will we challenge him because he is heading in the wrong direction? Those pro-life Americans who voted for him and support him should not object when we speak for the most vulnerable and defenseless of our fellow human beings, even when that means severely criticizing the President’s policies. They should stand with us on common ground, and join their voices with ours.”