Let me preface this post by saying I like Rand Paul. I once heard him speak at a Lincoln Day Dinner, and I was particularly impressed with his comments on the seriousness of abortion. Like many, I was impressed last month when Paul answered a reporter who asked his view on abortion in the cases of rape and incest by telling the reporter to ask Debbie Wasserman Shultz whether she is okay with killing a seven pound baby that is not yet born. However, Rand Paul recently made some very troublesome remarks in response to a question about abortion.
At an event in Philadelphia yesterday, Rand Paul was asked a question about how important of an issue abortion will be in his presidential campaign. This was his answer:*
You know, I will answer the question as honestly as I can. I didn’t run for office because of this issue. It wasn’t what got me to leave my practice. And I ran for office mainly because I became concerned that we’re going to destroy the country with debt. That we would borrow so much money that we would just destroy the currency.”
Okay so far. I disagree with Paul about the respective importance of the national debt versus the roughly 2,900 innocent preborn children that are dismembered, disemboweled, and decapitated every day in the US. However, I respect that Paul (presumably) is just giving an honest indication of his policy priorities. I would think that, like most presidential candidates, he wants to focus his campaign on economic issues rather than social issues. Paul’s answer didn’t stop there, though. He continued:
I think the question that still divides us, and it’s a difficult question, is when does life begin? I think we go down all kinds of rabbit holes talking about other stuff, but I’m an ophthalmologist, and I see one, two-pound babies in the neonatal nursery. I look into their eyes to try to prevent a form of blindness that is now preventable. And everybody agrees that that one-pound baby has rights. If someone were to hurt that one-pound baby in the neonatal nursery, it’s a problem. That baby has rights. But we somewhat inconsistently say that seven-pound baby at birth or just before birth has no rights. And so I think these are questions we have to sort out. We just have to figure when we agree life begins.
Now we’ve ventured into troubled waters. To be fair, Paul does a pretty decent job of highlighting the arbitrariness of using birth as the decisive factor in assigning legal rights. That we recognize the right to life of a 24 week-old child born prematurely but not of a 40 week-old child mere hours from birth seems, to me at least, entirely capricious. Call me simple-minded, but I think it defies credulity to claim that an 8-inch journey down the birth canal transforms a fetus with no right not to be killed in the most barbaric ways into a child with a right to life that cannot be taken away without due process of law. I applaud Paul for taking the opportunity to point this out.
But now on to the problems with Paul’s statement. Let’s look at that first sentence: “I think the question that still divides us, and it’s a difficult question, is when does life begin?” Actually, contra Paul, the question of when life begins is not a difficult one to answer. Scientists are virtually univocal in telling us that life begins at fertilization. But don’t take my word for it! Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth of Harvard Medical School, says, “It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive . . . It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” Or consult the testimony of the late Dr. Jerome LeJeune, one of the scientists credited with discovering Trisomy 21: “After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being . . . [It] is no longer a matter of taste or opinion . . . it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” If you’re still not convinced, you might try checking one of the leading embryology textbooks on the market, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. The authors, Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persuad, write, “A zygote (created at fertilization) is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization.”**
I could cite plenty of other scientists (or doctors or philosophers), but I’ll refrain. My point is that we can be very confident we know when human life begins. Politicians are about the only people who still think the question of when life begins is an intractable mystery. A vast number of abortion advocates nowadays will concede that preborn children are human beings but deny that they are persons. The question of when personhood begins is where the current debate on abortion usually lies.
If Rand Paul is still unsure of when life begins, every pro-abortion ethicist of which I’m aware would happily set him straight.
My second significant misgiving with Paul’s remarks concerns his conclusion that “We just have to figure when we agree life begins.” Again, it’s really the question of personhood that divides the pro-abortion and anti-abortion sides, not the question of when life begins. But that’s not what troubles me here. He’s not saying that in order to decide whether or not to allow abortion we first have to determine when life begins; he’s saying that in order to decide whether or not to allow abortion we first have to determine the social consensus on when life begins. This might seem like a pedantic, insignificant distinction, but it’s not.
What Paul is suggesting (perhaps inadvertently) is that we can decide moral questions based not on facts but on society’s recognition or rejection of those facts. I couldn’t disagree more. That rape is wrong is a fact. But even if a majority of people did not agree on this, it would still be right to prohibit rape. Slavery was a reprehensible, abominable practice that should not have been permitted even when there was no social consensus to this effect.
Social consensus is generally a fine way to decide public policy on amoral questions like which side of the road to drive on or what color to paint fire hydrants. Some answers to these questions might be better than others, but it’s not morally wrong for a municipality to decide it really wants its fire hydrants to be purple. But when it comes to moral questions, a popular vote is not an acceptable way to determine public policy. Whether abortion is permissible is a moral question. As such, it should be decided by facts: facts about when human life begins, facts about what constitutes a person, and facts about the permissibility or impermissibility of killing human beings and human persons (if there is actually any difference between the two). Whether or not the majority of people recognize these facts should no more affect whether we allow or prohibit abortion than should public attitudes towards stealing determine whether we allow or prohibit burglary. I hope Paul’s last sentence was just a careless mistake rather than a reflection of his actual views. With any luck, maybe sometime soon he’ll take a quick break from worrying about the national debt to let us know.***
Director of Outreach
*Paul’s remarks are taken from this Huffington Post article.
**The remarks by Drs. Matthews-Roth and LeJeune were part of medical testimonies given to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 1981 (which gives some indication of how long science has been clear that life begins at fertilization). The quote by Moore and Persuad is from the 6th edition of their textbook.
***I should clarify that I do agree with Rand Paul that our national debt and our spending levels are problems that need to be addressed; I just think that they rank behind preborn child-killing in terms of importance.